WASHINGTON — Rising sea levels and violent weather caused by climate change could force some people in the Chesapeake Bay area inland in the coming decades, said a migration policy expert.
“If you look at any of the maps that show areas of the world that are low-lying coastal areas, the Chesapeake Bay always shows up,” said Susan Martin, executive director of the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University.
Martin co-chaired the Transatlantic Study Team on Climate-Induced Migration, a group convened to study how climate affects migration, which released a report Wednesday that says natural disasters like rising sea levels and drought will inevitably affect people around the globe.
The study argues that policymakers should begin planning how to handle the resulting internal and international movements now.
Martin said there is a tendency to think of drastic climate changes and resulting migration as a problem only third world countries have to deal with.
The bay has already lost 13 islands to rising sea levels, which could reach 17-28 inches above 1990 levels by 2095, according to the National Wildlife Federation.
“The bay makes Maryland the fourth most vulnerable state for pollution,” said Tommy Landers, a policy advocate at Environment Maryland. The state’s exposed shores make it especially susceptible to damage from hurricanes, which the study said have been increasing in strength.
According to a recent report by Environment Maryland, sea levels along the East Coast have been rising at a rate of nearly 1 foot per century due to global warming.
Other parts of the world are already feeling the effects of a disappearing coast.
In Tanzania, erosion and rising sea levels have lead to the loss of settlements in coastal areas and have forced people to relocate.
Martin said Bangladesh has taken steps to help its citizens cope with a changing environment. Officials changed building codes to require that houses be built on stilts in anticipation of erosion and rising sea levels.
If Bangladesh can plan ahead, Martin said, there’s no reason that Maryland can’t do the same.
Different environmental factors cause varying rates of migration. According to the team’s findings, drought and rising sea levels lead to gradual migration, while last year’s earthquake in Haiti and this summer’s flooding in Pakistan caused sudden refugee movements.
Martin said she’s not advocating that people leave the bay area immediately. Instead, she said officials and residents should start planning ahead.
“It’s not useful to be an alarmist,” Martin said. “We have some time.”
The team, which formed in 2009, said policymakers need to take steps now to improve the science and dialogue that helps shape strategies.