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See Inside January 2011

Casualties of Climate Change: Sea-level Rises Could Displace Tens of Millions

Shifts in rainfall patterns and shorelines will contribute to mass migrations on a scale never before seen



Mozambique Flood Extents (flooding); Bradfield Lyon IRI/Earth Institute, Columbia University; Rainfall data from Global Precipitation Climatology Center (GPCC) and IRI Data Library (drought)

Since the beginning of recorded time, climate-forced migrations have reshaped civilization. Four thousand years ago a prolonged drought and the resulting famine in Canaan drove Jacob and his sons to Egypt, setting the stage for the famous exodus led by Moses. Three millennia later a prolonged dry period and lack of grazing lands helped to push Mongol armies out of Central Asia as far west as Europe, where many settled and intermarried. And in the 20th century the American Dust Bowl, an ecological catastrophe precipitated by drought and compounded by bad land-management policies, displaced 3.5 million people from the Midwest.

Today this age-old story has a new twist. We are entering an era marked by rapid changes in climate brought on by man-made greenhouse gas emissions. Anticipated changes include higher rainfall variability, greater frequency of extreme events (such as droughts and floods), sea-level rise, ocean acidification, and long-term shifts in temperature and precipitation—any of which can profoundly disrupt the ecosystems that supply our basic needs. In our more densely settled world, people may be forced from their homes in numbers never seen before.

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