• A record-breaking Atlantic hurricane season is adding a new chapter to the ‘great climate migration.’
  • An estimated one billion people live countries unprepared for impending ecological changes, and many will be displaced.
  • The number of people newly-displaced by disasters reached 14.6 million in the first half of this year alone.

While much of the world’s attention was focused on the aftermath of an election and a pandemic still hitting bleak milestones, a pair of hurricanes blew through Central America and the Caribbean Sea – sometimes wiping entire communities off the map.

A string of Atlantic storms has exhausted the traditional naming system for the second time ever, forcing meteorologists to turn the Greek alphabet. Eta gave way to Theta and then Iota, extending a record-breaking hurricane season that’s vividly demonstrating how climate change leads to increasingly hyperactive storms as ocean temperatures warm. It’s also the latest evidence of the “great climate migration” occurring in response to such disasters.

Eta forced millions of people to evacuate in Honduras, and in Guatemala half of the residents of a village were buried by a mudslide triggered by the storm; an official declared that the evacuated area would simply be declared a cemetery. Theta subsequently weakened over the Atlantic, though Iota – the most powerful hurricane ever recorded this late in the season – has since left at least 16 people dead in Nicaragua, where more than 160,000 people had to be evacuated..

Globally, about one billion people live in countries lacking the resilience to deal with the ecological changes they’re expected to face between now and 2050, according to a recent report, and a large number of them will be displaced. In Indonesia, for example, the capital is being moved away from low-lying Jakarta as the city is claimed by rising sea levels. That may involve building a replacement the size of New York on forested land on another island, and potentially uprooting large numbers of indigenous people in the process.

Further evidence that it's not just people living on the coast who are threatened with becoming climate migrants: a study published last week suggested that “hurricane decay” has slowed in the past 50 years due to warmer sea surface temperatures, meaning that the destruction wrought by these storms will progressively extend further inland.

Image: World Economic Forum

The increasingly large and intense wildfires that have plagued places like Australia and the West Coast of the US are another result of worsening climate change – and are also generating waves of potential new climate migrants.

More than an estimated 3,100 homes were destroyed during Australia’s 2019-2020 bushfire season, which threatened more than 8,000 people with long-term displacement. People who wanted to rebuild after the fires there may have been prevented from doing so due to a lack of adequate insurance coverage. That lack of insurance prompted one expert to predict the driving of people away “from large inhabited regions of this continent.”

In Oregon, more than 40,000 residents of the state were forced to evacuate amid raging wildfires earlier this year. The roughly 40 simultaneous blazes across the state scorched an area roughly double what burns in a typical year. Meanwhile in California, where the number of acres burned by wildfires has increased fivefold since the early 1970s, nearly 200,000 people were at least temporarily displaced as millions of acres went up in flames.

Globally, an estimated 14.6 million people were displaced by disasters including fires and storms during the first half of this year alone.

Image: World Economic Forum

COVID-19 has created additional concerns. According to one report, the pandemic has only heightened the vulnerability of internally displaced people, and created new related risks including poverty and food insecurity.

For more context, here are links to further reading from the World Economic Forum’s Strategic Intelligence platform:

  • Some scientists previously suggested that while global warming will likely fuel more intense storms, the overall number of storms would decline. Now, according to this report, that projection of a drop-off seems far less certain. (Inside Climate News)
  • The damage inflicted by Hurricane Eta in Central America included roughly 1,900 destroyed homes along with 900 kilometres of road in Nicaragua alone, and more than 60 missing people in Panama. (Business and Human Rights Resource Centre)
  • Guatemala was the top country of origin for those apprehended at the southern US border last year, and according to this report the destruction of crops and homes there due to extreme weather could spur more people to flee north. (The New Humanitarian)
  • More than one million displacements have occurred each year on average in the US since 2016 due to disasters like increasingly severe fires and hurricanes, according to this report, and six feet of sea level rise could force about 13 million Americans to move by 2100. (Yale Climate Connections)
  • Alarming headlines about impending waves of climate refugees are often well-intentioned, but rarely achieve their intended effect, according to this analysis – which argues that they instead risk fear-based stories of invasion propagated by the far right. (The Conversation)
  • At the intersection of climate change and COVID-19: this recent study suggests that epidemiologists should adopt traditional climate-modelling methods to make their forecasts more reliable. (Nature)
  • In Italy, one impact of COVID-19 on migrants has been their confinement on commercial ferries. According to this report, the government practice of using ferries as floating quarantine centres for migrants and asylum seekers has stirred outrage among human rights activists. (The New Humanitarian)

On the Strategic Intelligence platform, you can find feeds of expert analysis related to Climate Change, Migration and hundreds of additional topics. You’ll need to register to view.

Image: World Economic Forum