For decades now, we’ve seen climate change take its toll on regional populations around the globe. Severe weather events, shortages of food and water and otherwise unstable living conditions have all forced people to uproot their lives and relocate, a phenomenon known as climate migration. We know this is happening, but without measuring this trend more precisely, it’s difficult to plan ahead. How will populations look 50 years from now? How will economies reshape themselves?

Now, there’s reason for hope on that front. According to Science Daily, a group of Spanish researchers has developed a system that uses data from people’s mobile phones to track the human displacement caused by climate change. Enrique Frías-Martínez, researcher at Telefónica Research, explained that with the aid of geolocated tweets and cell phone records, his team was able to conclude that 10 percent of people relocated in the six months following a severe drought in Colombia in 2014.

“We have verified that, with cell phone traces, these migrations can be characterized with a success rate of over 60 percent, both in terms of the total number of people who migrate and the place where they move to,” Frías-Martínez said. “Since displacements caused by climate change—especially by extreme drought and soil erosion—are going to be increasingly frequent, this mobile tracking system could be very useful, especially if we take into account that these devices are already widespread in developing countries.”

While a success rate of 60 percent in tracking climate migration doesn’t sound the most precise, it’s enough to get statistically significant estimate across a large population. Using that figure, scientists can make greater extrapolations, which they can then use to forecast how populations and economies will shift long-term due to climate change.

With this knowledge, we can begin to develop some general theories about how climate migration works. For example, Frías-Martínez has already concluded that people tend to transition from rural areas to more urban environments because cities have better economic prospects and easier access to food and water.

As the researchers perform further trials and gather more information about long-term migration trends, society as a whole will be better equipped for adaptation to future climate shakeups.

Photo by cdrin /