Climate-proof Duluth? Why the city is attracting 'climate migrants'

An aerial view of Duluth Lakewalk
A stretch of the Lakewalk in Dec. 17, 2020, in Duluth, Minn. The city has been identified as a potential destination for future “climate migrants” — people who leave their homes due to rising sea levels or climate-related extreme weather.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News 2020

Duluth native Karen Pagel Guerndt remembers when she first heard that her hometown had been singled out as an ideal location for people seeking refuge from the growing consequences of a warming world. It was January. And it was 20 degrees below zero.

"And so to me, the whole idea of climate migration, it kind of made me laugh," she said.

If anything, she and other locals mused, Duluth’s climate is going to keep people away. Winters, after all, can be notoriously frigid, long and unforgiving.

But Harvard lecturer Jesse Keenan, an expert on climate adaptation, had recently identified Duluth as a potential hotspot for future “climate migrants” — people escaping rising sea levels or extreme conditions like drought, heat waves and wildfire smoke fueled by climate change. Keenan described the city's climate as moderate, and he noted its access to abundant fresh water and room to grow.

When he traveled to Duluth to pitch his idea for the city to playfully market itself as "Climate-Proof Duluth," the media loved it. The New York Times did a big story; CNN visited. Pagel Guerndt got interviewed as well.

And soon afterward, she said, "I started hearing from people, from clients from the two coastal areas mostly, East Coast and West Coast, saying, ‘What is this place called Duluth? And what is your weather really like here?’ "

She sold a house to a couple from Colorado who cited climate change as their chief reason for moving. And the calls are still coming. She’s currently working with clients from North Carolina and Utah who cite climate change as primary reasons for their interest in Duluth.

"I think Duluth as a climate migration hub is already a thing. I think we're just starting to recognize it,” said Doug Kouma, who moved to Duluth two years ago from California’s Sonoma County.

“And I think two, three, five years from now, it's going to be what Duluth will likely be known for, far and wide.”

First fire, then floods

A man at a distillery.
Doug Kouma at Vikre Distillery where he's worked since moving to Duluth, Minn., from Sonoma County, Calif., in the fall of 2019.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

Kouma moved from Iowa to Northern California in the fall of 2017 after a long corporate career in the publishing industry. He wanted a fresh start and decided to move to California’s wine country, where he had always loved to vacation.

When he moved, the 47-year-old said he prepared himself emotionally for the possibility that he’d have to live through an earthquake.

“It had never once crossed my mind that I might wake up in the middle of a night with a wildfire bearing down on my house,” he said. “And then that happened."

Ash rained out of the sky for several days. Smoke choked the air. He didn’t have to evacuate, but 3,000 homes were destroyed that year in Santa Rosa, where he lived. Twenty-two people died.

The next year he fulfilled a long-standing dream by moving to a small town in the redwoods along the Russian River, figuring he had escaped wildfires. But Kouma hadn’t counted on floods. That winter he had to evacuate his home for several days because of rising floodwaters fueled by a 500-year rainstorm.

“‘Was it safe to be here?’ was the question at that point,” he said. So he decided to leave, and head back to the Midwest, where he still had friends and family.

“I always tell people I wasn't fleeing because of climate change,” he said. “But I wasn't not fleeing because of climate change.” He also wanted to buy a house and put down roots, and he knew that was a longshot in Northern California.

“I don't know how I can make it work in a way that I can afford to do it,” he remembers thinking. “And live in a place where I feel relatively safe from some of these threats that are now just a part of life."

Kouma created a spreadsheet to help rank several cities he was considering in the Midwest. And Duluth, he said, rose to the top because of the outdoor beauty and its “burgeoning creative community.” He visited, and it just felt right.

He moved in October 2019, landed a job at Vikre Distillery, and bought a house on the hillside with a view of Lake Superior. "Honestly I never thought I would feel kind of emotionally connected” to the lake, he said. “Boy, it grabs you. And I don't know why. But it does.”

He admits that Duluth at times is a “frustratingly small town.” He’d like to meet a partner, which has been made even more difficult because of COVID-19. And the winters, he warns, are the real deal — long and cold.

Despite that, he knows a number of Californians who are considering a move to Duluth, at least in part because of climate change, and more who already have.

Christina Welch moved to Duluth just a few months after Kouma did. They actually worked together in California.

A woman takes a selfie.
Christina Welch took a selfie in October 2019, when she visited Duluth, Minn., for the first time. She moved in December from California after experiencing several difficult wildfire seasons.
Courtesy of Christina Welch

Like Kouma, Welch had grown increasingly nervous about the annual threat of wildfires. But unlike Kouma, she had grown up in Sonoma County and never thought she would leave.

But after the 2017 fires, and pervasive smoke from other wildfires the following year, she asked herself, “‘Do I really want to live here, where every year, we get evacuated, or we’re going to be under threat of evacuation, and this is probably not going to get any better?’ ”

So she visited Duluth in October 2019. And while she was there, another wildfire in California forced her parents to evacuate their home.

“When that happened, I thought, ‘This is my sign. I need to go.’”

She lined up a job at the University of Minnesota Duluth, and moved the first week of December — just after Duluth had finished digging out from a Thanksgiving storm that dumped more than a foot of snow on the city.

But, like Kouma, she’s embraced her new home. She bought a house, and said affordability was the most important driver for her leaving, after climate.

“To this day I don’t regret leaving. I miss family, I miss friends, but I know that I can see them and they’re always welcome here.”

Climate migrants bring opportunity, challenges

It's important to distinguish between two distinct categories of climate migrants, said Jesse Keenan, the climate adaptation researcher who's now at Tulane University.

There are people who are displaced by climate-related disasters, and who may have limited resources to relocate or rebuild. And then there are people, like Kouma and Welch, who reevaluate where they want to live, because of climate or other factors.

"There is a cohort of Americans who have the means, the resources, and they have the elective mobility to be on the move," Keenan said.

There isn't much data to show how many people are actually moving because of climate change. Only anecdotal stories. Duluth hasn’t grown much in the past decade, only adding around 400 residents since the last census.

But in a survey of 2,000 U.S. residents last year, the online real estate company Redfin found that about half of Americans who planned to move factored extreme weather and natural disasters into their decisions to relocate.

Many people were also hesitant to buy homes in areas of high climate risk. “So it seems like across the board, people are aware of climate change,” said Daryl Fairweather, chief economist at Redfin.

But Fairweather said a second analysis found that despite what people say, more people are actually moving into areas with the highest risk of extreme weather from climate change.

“So the Great Lakes region is one of the places that will be the most naturally resilient to climate change,” she said. “And yet people continue to leave the Rust Belt,” for the Sun Belt, for cities like Phoenix, Austin and Miami.

Still, experts like Keenan say the trend of climate migration will only accelerate. Fairweather is actually a climate migrant herself. Last year she moved from Seattle to a small town in southeastern Wisconsin.

“And the thing that kind of pushed me over the edge was the smoke that kept happening because of the wildfires,” she said. “Three out of the four summers I lived there, there was wildfire smoke so bad I couldn't go outside for a whole week.”

Being able to work remotely, something made easier by the pandemic, facilitated the move. “But it was climate change,” she said. “That was the last straw.”

In Duluth, Mayor Emily Larson said she’s met several people who have moved to the city in the last couple years, spurred at least in part by climate change. She’s excited they chose Duluth because newcomers add diversity and bring fresh ideas.

"Any time that we are growing and expanding, and people find us to be a home, I think that's wonderful,” Larson said.

Visible in Duluth
The northern lights are visible from a home in Duluth's Lakeside neighborhood June 22, 2015.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News 2015

But migrants bring challenges as well as opportunity. Like many cities, there's a shortage of affordable housing in Duluth. And housing prices are increasingly rapidly.

"We need to prioritize making sure that we're not displacing people locally for that,” Larson said, “that we're not making an even greater dent in our limited housing stock because of that."

Many climate migrants themselves are aware of the impacts they have on their new homes.

Jamie Alexander moved to Duluth with her family two years ago from the San Francisco area. Her young children had health vulnerabilities from the increasing amount of wildfire smoke there.

Alexander, who works for a climate-related nonprofit, told MPR News it’s important to plan for the growing number of people likely to move because of climate change, “so that we’re able to do it in a way that ensures equity, that we’re not exacerbating inequities in places we’re moving to, that we’re not driving up house prices, which is already happening here in Duluth.”

Housing prices also a factor

Affordability is also a key issue for many people who choose to relocate from the western U.S. But for some people climate change is the spark that pushes them to leave.

Rose Chivers and her husband run an e-commerce company in Salt Lake City. Since they moved there nearly seven years ago, she's been bothered by winter air pollution, trapped by the surrounding mountains. But in the past few years she says wildfires have harmed air quality in the summer, too.

"Our anniversary trip, our birthday trips were all thwarted because of wildfire smoke kind of covering the state,” she said.

She runs and her husband mountain bikes. But she said that lately they haven't exercised outdoors, which is a big part of why they moved to Utah in the first place. "And it's just been really disappointing and heartbreaking and frustrating," she says.

They started looking around for possible places to move. Chivers' husband remembered a story from Outside Magazine that named Duluth as the country's top outdoor town. Then they found the Harvard research identifying Duluth as a possible destination for people like them. Houses are also a lot cheaper. So, two weeks ago, they visited.

"It was just absolutely lovely. We did hear that it possibly was during a window where Duluth is particularly a paradise — but it was!"

Duluth was also a place where they could afford a mortgage.

They’re still working out the timeline, but Chivers said they’ve decided to move to Duluth, which is a painful decision for them.

“We've been talking a lot about how much grief we have, because we love the West. But we also are realists, and we were also pleasantly surprised by the beauty of Minnesota, and the prospects for having real winters.”

That’s not to say climate change isn’t impacting Duluth as well. Major floods caused severe damage in the city in 2012. And wildfire smoke from Canadian fires caused major air pollution for days at a time this summer.

Doug Kouma said that smoke triggered anxiety for him from the wildfires he experienced in California. He said it was a good reminder that you can’t totally escape climate change, even in “climate-proof Duluth.”

“But all things considered, you know, I have no desire to move back to a place with hot, sweltering, humid summers,” said Kouma. “And if winter gets a little more mild here in Duluth, Minn., I can live with that.”

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