In January, I flew to Duluth, Minn., to find people who had moved across the country seeking refuge from climate change.
But before I traveled to Minnesota, I went to Ohio.
I grew up just outside Cleveland, on the southern edge of Lake Erie. When an assignment took me back home in October, I reconnected with a friend from high school. She had moved to Seattle after college and had recently returned to Cleveland with her husband and children. The reason, she said, was simple: Seattle, a city of mild temperatures where many residents don’t have air-conditioning, was changing. The past several summers had brought record-breaking heat and scorching wildfires, and she feared rising sea levels as well.
As the effects of climate change grow more intense in Seattle, the Great Lakes region, which sits well above sea level and generally runs cooler, felt to her like a safer place to live.
As a real estate reporter, I am always exploring how and where Americans choose to buy homes. More and more, their decisions are being shaped by the present and future of climate change.
When I returned home to New York from Cleveland, I began looking into the idea of American climate refuges, which are areas that climate scientists identify as sheltered from some of the more extreme weather conditions that the nation’s coastal and low-lying regions are already contending with. The New York Times has been tracking the global climate migration for several years; four years ago, we covered a report from Jesse Keenan, then a professor at Harvard, zeroing in on a handful of U.S. cities that he believed would become climate havens in the coming years.
Many of those cities are in the cooler, landlocked Midwest. But it was Duluth, Minn., which Dr. Keenan nicknamed “climate-proof Duluth,” that he believed would be one of the safest bets.
Duluth is a midsize city on Lake Superior with biting winters marked by mountains of snow and temperatures that can dip as low as 30 degrees below zero. It has also seen better days: The city was once a bustling manufacturing hub. As jobs at its steel and cement mill dried up in the second half of the 20th century, so did its economic prospects. Today, the city’s downtown is a patchwork of blighted storefronts.
But in my conversations with sources about climate refuges, Duluth kept coming up. After sitting down with my friend from high school, I found dozens of other people through social media who had moved to the Midwest in recent years because of fears of climate change. Many of them had sold million-dollar homes and uprooted their families from places such as New Mexico, Colorado, California and Washington. So I was curious: Were people actually moving to “climate-proof Duluth” in significant numbers? And if they were, how was their presence changing the city?
So in January, I headed there to find out.
After I landed, I made my way to the rental car counter at Duluth’s airport and requested a car with four-wheel drive to help navigate the slippery roads. The woman behind the counter gave me a smile when I told her I hadn’t driven in winter weather for many years.
“You’re lucky it’s not going to snow this week, then,” she said.
Puzzled, I gestured out the window, where a light dusting of flakes was already beginning to coat the road.
“Oh, that?” she said. “That doesn’t count as snow.”
In Duluth, I spoke with longtime residents who were delighted that the city’s growing popularity had raised their property values. Others expressed concern that, as Duluth’s housing market became more competitive, their children would have no choice but to purchase property elsewhere.
I also sat down with newcomers — from places like Denver, San Francisco and Santa Fe, N.M. — all of whom had contended with drought, wildfires and ferocious heat at home, and who had hoped to find sanctuary in Duluth. We shared craft beers in the Lincoln Park district, where trendy restaurants and breweries are popping up alongside outdoor curling rinks. They told me they had left everything behind to raise their families in a place they felt would offer them protection as the globe grows hotter.
They all shared a similar sentiment: Nowhere on the globe is fully removed from climate change. But as wildfires become more intense and sea levels rise, Duluth might be manageable.
But some new residents also had hesitations. Duluth may offer an escape from scorching temperatures, but its winters are long and gray. Many of the transplants I spoke with admitted they often felt homesick for the sunshine they’d left behind. One of them, a man in his 60s from New Mexico, told me he now spends half the year afraid of slipping on the ice and breaking a bone.
In my three days in Duluth, flakes swirled the entire time. During the March weekend that my article was published, the city was walloped with more than a foot of snow, in what the woman at the rental car counter surely would have counted as snowfall. Another one of my sources, a mother from San Francisco, tweeted that she was excited to see her story make The New York Times, but could someone please save a copy for her? Thanks to the snow, she was stuck at home.
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