Image: Photo by Saumya Khandelwal for The New York Times].

A paper released last year by Mathew Hauer at the University of Georgia sought to identify where future sea-level refugees might end up in the continental United States. If tens of millions of people will need to depart from Florida, Louisiana, South Carolina, Huntington Beach, New York City, and elsewhere, where exactly are they going to go?

As Hauer phrased it—with italics in the original—he wanted to address “one fundamental question regarding sea level rise induced migration: Where will sea level rise migrants likely migrate? Local officials in landlocked communities can use these results to plan for potential infrastructure required to accommodate an influx of coastal migrants and could shift the conceptualization of sea level rise from a coastal issue to an everywhere issue.”

Inter-American sea-level refugees will end up, he concludes, in places like Las Vegas, Austin, and Atlanta, pushing already strained future resources to the breaking point.

In any case, I thought of Hauer’s paper when I saw a tweet suggesting that “India becoming too hot for human life is probably going to be the migration event that completely destabilizes global geopolitics.”

The comment was made in reference to a New York Times article about literally unbearable temperatures—temperatures too hot for human survival—that are beginning to recur in India.

The article describes heat so intense it “is already making [people] poorer and sicker. Like the Kolkata street vendor who squats on his haunches from fatigue and nausea. Like the woman who sells water to tourists in Delhi and passes out from heatstroke at least once each summer. Like the women and men with fever and headaches who fill emergency rooms. Like the outdoor workers who become so weak or so sick that they routinely miss days of work, and their daily wages.”

By the end of this century, we read, temperatures “in several of South Asia’s biggest cities” could “be so high that people directly exposed for six hours or more would not survive.” Six hours.

Of course, this comes at the same time as worries that Tokyo—Tokyo!—might be too hot to host the 2020 Olympics, and as heat records are set all over the planet.

It’s not hard to imagine a world of militarized checkpoints surrounding regions zoned for air-conditioning, or altitude itself—and the thermal comforts associated with elevation gain—being rewarded more and more in the decades to come.

So, as with refugees fleeing sea-level rise, where will everyone go? Or, to paraphrase Mathew Hauer, where will heat migrants likely migrate?

Thermal Crime Wave

[Image: From FBI surveillance video in Baltimore].

One interesting side-effect of ever-intensifying heatwaves in an era of global climate change might be that infrared imaging technology used by the police is no longer quite as effective. Human bodies will be cooler than the surrounding landscape, meaning that they could simply disappear from view.

It’s like that scene in The Thomas Crown Affair where a portable heater, hidden inside a briefcase, incapacitates an infrared surveillance camera at the Metropolitan Museum of Art—only, here, it’s been scaled up to an entire metropolis. Heat the city; disappear.

This is, of course, a solved problem—forward-looking infrared (FLIR) cameras can be adjusted to accommodate different temperature ranges. Nonetheless, it’s intriguing to imagine a fictional future crime wave timed specifically and deliberately for a night of excruciatingly hot temperatures in a city somewhere, the bodies of criminals mischievously blending in with the buildings around them as they only rob buildings close to their own thermal range. Criminals armed with precision thermometers, casing the city.

That, or they can simply wear graphene.

(Thanks to @raihan_ for the heads up; also, I wrote fairly extensively about police FLIR use in A Burglar’s Guide to the City.)