A new study that used artificial intelligence to study the impact of rising sea levels has revealed we could become a nation of climate refugees.

The study, published in January in the journal PLOS ONE, is the first to use machine learning to project migration patterns resulting from sea-level rise. The effect will go far beyond the United States’ coastlines and will ripple across the country, according to the researchers.

“Sea level rise will affect every county in the U.S., including inland areas,” said corresponding author Bistra Dilkina, a computer science professor at the University of Southern California. “We hope this research will empower urban planners and local decision-makers to prepare to accept populations displaced by sea-level rise. Our findings indicated that everybody should care about sea-level rise, whether they live on the coast or not. This is a global impact issue.”

Sea-level rise is caused by two factors related to global warming: melting ice sheets and glaciers depositing waters into the oceans, and the expansion of sea water as it warms. The researchers write that within just a few decades, hundreds of thousands of homes on U.S. coastlines will be flooded. By the end of the century, if things continue as they are, six feet of ocean-level rise would render unrecognizable the coastline of southern Florida, parts of North Carolina and Virginia, and most of Boston and New Orleans.

The team says their research indicates that the most popular relocation choices will be landlocked cities such as Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Denver, and Las Vegas. The model also predicts that the Midwest will experience a disproportionately large influx of people fleeing rising sea levels.

“We talk about rising sea levels, but the effects go much further than those directly affected on the coasts, said Caleb Robinson, the study’s first author. “We wanted to look at not only who would be displaced, but also where would they go.”

The team based their sea-level rise model on migration patterns after Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita. Their model showed that most of the effects of migration will be felt by inland areas near the coasts, but it also showed more incoming migrants to Houston and Dallas than previous studies, which had shown Austin to be the top destination for climate refugees from the southeastern coast.

“When migration occurs naturally, it is a great engine for economic activity and growth, said University of Waterloo economist and professor, and study co-author, Juan Moreno Cruz. “But when migration is forced upon people, productivity falls and human and social capital are lost as communities are broken apart. Understanding these migration decisions helps economies and policymakers prepare for what is to come and do as much as possible to make the influx of migration a positive experience that generates positive outcomes.

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