Rowan research: climate change to cause isolation for renters, older adults, and people of color

Rowan research: climate change to cause isolation for renters, older adults, and people of color

Dr. Qian He

Scientists long ago determined that human-caused climate change is creating ever-greater and more frequent periods of extreme weather, drought, wildfires and flooding but a new study co-authored by a Rowan University researcher indicates it will also cause dangerous isolation in transportation accessibility, especially for renters, older populations, as well as Black and Hispanic communities.

Dr. Qian He and her collaborators, writing in the journal Nature Communications, indicated that sea level rise (SLR) resulting from the warming climate will cause dangerous isolation as roads, particularly along the coast, become flooded and impassable, cutting off residents from all manner of necessities, such as food, schools, medical care and emergency services.

“Within coastal communities, sea level rise will result in widespread intermittent flooding and long-term inundation,” the study stated. “Inundation effects will be evident, but isolation that arises from the loss of accessibility to critical services due to inundation of transportation networks may be less obvious.”

With her co-authors, He, an assistant professor in the Department of Geography, Planning & Sustainability within Rowan’s School of Earth & Environment, compared data from the website OpenStreetMap, the U.S. Census and other sources to areas predicted by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association to be at risk for flooding and partial flooding due to sea level rise.

“Combining socio-demographic data with an isolation metric, we identified social and economic disparities in risk of isolation under different SLR scenarios for the coastal U.S.,” He said. “We show that Black and Hispanic populations face a disproportionate risk of isolation at intermediate levels of SLR (4 ft and greater). Further, census tracts with higher rates of renters and older adults consistently face a higher risk of isolation… These insights point to significant inequity in the burdens associated with SLR.”

The paper found that “an estimated 20 million coastal residents in the U.S. will be at risk of inundation due to sea level rise and/or storm surges by 2030” and that “disadvantaged populations, meaning those that have the fewest resources and least ability to adapt and respond, will experience the most severe effects” from it.

“SLR is increasingly impacting our lives,” He said. “We usually consider that if your house is flooded, you’re impacted. But if a fire truck can’t get to your house, if you can’t get to a supermarket, your life is also impacted.”

The paper considered two basic questions: how risk of isolation varies for racial and ethnic groups along the coastal U.S.; and how the risk of isolation correlates with socio-demographic characteristics associated with social vulnerability such as age, income, renter status and racial composition.

The answers to those questions can be invaluable to planners and, ultimately, policymakers, He said.

“The impact of climate change will not be equally distributed across neighborhoods because people of lower economic status may not have as much of a choice as to where to live,” she said.

The article, “Demographics and risk of isolation due to sea level rise in the United States,” published Nov. 30.