Should I buy a haven in case of climate change?
July 19, 2017 4:12 AM   Subscribe

Should I find a piece land to buy that I could move to decades from now, in case of severe climate change effects? If so, where? How about Fairbanks, Alaska?

Say I believe that the impacts of climate change will be varied and wide-ranging, not limited to coastal flooding. I might have 50 or so more years to live, but say I also believe global warming projections are, if anything, optimistic. So, I want to plan for what's projected to happen in at least double that time.

I'm not a prepper, I already live north-ish (in Massachusetts), and I don't imagine that anywhere will be really safe from the impacts of climate change. But a piece of land seems like a reasonable place to park a chunk of our savings until either 1. we need the money in retirement and sell, or 2. climate changes are looming enough that we move there.

If it's not a good idea, why not?

If it is, why aren't lots of people who have savings doing it? How would you pick the region to buy in? I'm thinking: cheap, far north, not coastal, reasonable property taxes, and in the U.S. (since we're citizens). What else? Here's a straw-man: Fairbanks, Alaska. I know next to nothing about Fairbanks, except hey, it's far north, easily the U.S.'s coldest city, inland, relatively populous. As for being a great place to live, I figure anyplace would change in climate-pressured scenarios, anyway. Would you nominate somewhere else, though?
posted by daisyace to Science & Nature (31 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
The far north is ground zero for climate change, and is basically falling apart. Nobody really knows what it is going to be like in 50 years because things are changing so fast. I'll dig some links out later, but the upper Midwest, (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan) is generally expected to be OK to live in in many future climate scenarios.
posted by rockindata at 4:29 AM on July 19, 2017 [10 favorites]

The NOAA Climate Explorer (Desktop browsers only) is a useful tool for looking at future climate scenarios areound the country. It is part of a larger climate resiliency toolkit that NOAA put together. I'm not directly involved in climate change work, but my colleagues who are and contributed to that tool are pretty happy with it.
posted by rockindata at 4:37 AM on July 19, 2017 [3 favorites]

Thanks! The projections for the upper Midwest don't look that different from Massachusetts on many of those maps, and Alaska doesn't seem to be included at all, so I'd love to know more.
posted by daisyace at 5:18 AM on July 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

A couple things to consider about Alaska would include its remoteness and your ability to obtain goods and services, and the methane release predicted from thawing the permafrost layer.

I guess a better question to ask yourself is, what do you want your selected place to have? Not just weather-wise, but quality of life too.

I can certainly vouch for MN to have the things you listed, plus being a nice place to live (when cops aren't shooting people), but if you're more specific about your goals, it might be easier to narrow down a location.
posted by Autumnheart at 5:56 AM on July 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

I don't think that there are solid projections.

Part of the problem is social change, which is even less predictable but just as important for your quality of life. For example, if climate change starts to stress government resources even more, we might see far-flung communities receiving even less governmental support. Their climate might be pleasant, but they might not have usable roads. We just don't know.

This is one big reason people aren't sinking their savings into climate change properties, even those that believe it will get bad in their lifetime. Keeping it as cash means you can be more flexible.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 6:00 AM on July 19, 2017 [4 favorites]

My suggestion come the civic meltdown that climate change disaster will herald is not to move to a city that is horrendously remote and grossly underfunded in a state that has less than 300 state troopers and the highest rate of gun ownership in the nation.

I predict that will not end well for you.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:23 AM on July 19, 2017 [22 favorites]

None of the climate scientists I know are doing this or recommending that anyone do this. Parking your savings in real estate in a remote area that you know nothing about seems imprudent. Who knows how hard it could be to sell when and if you need the money.
posted by karbonokapi at 6:30 AM on July 19, 2017 [5 favorites]

You will need and want a community of people who you trust and like, especially since you will be older. I would focus, hard, on trying everything, and supporting others who are trying everything, to foster those kinds of communities. Real, on-the-ground, resource-husbanding, other-empowering communities are the way to be safe. This is complex, risky, sometimes depressing work, but it's stuff people have been doing and writing about for centuries, so it's completely possible. It can also be immensely rewarding.
posted by amtho at 6:35 AM on July 19, 2017 [13 favorites]

The far north is ground zero for climate change, and is basically falling apart. Nobody really knows what it is going to be like in 50 years because things are changing so fast. I'll dig some links out later, but the upper Midwest, (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan) is generally expected to be OK to live in in many future climate scenarios.

What about Canada? :P
posted by GiveUpNed at 6:40 AM on July 19, 2017

I imagine Canada is going to be increasingly hard to (legally) emigrate to.

Come be my neighbor. I live 20 minutes north of downtown St. Paul. Tons of farms, naturally occurring water, a strong agrarian culture and interest in protecting natural resources, no earthquakes, little flooding, good infrastructure, and plenty of land available for purchase.
posted by Autumnheart at 6:49 AM on July 19, 2017 [4 favorites]

PNW; "In a new study in the journal Science, researchers analyzed the economic harm that climate change could inflict on the United States in the coming century. They found that the impacts could prove highly unequal: states in the Northeast and West would fare relatively well, while parts of the Midwest and Southeast would be especially hard hit."
posted by notyou at 7:07 AM on July 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

My assumption is that if the consequences of climate change become catastrophic enough that I feel the need to flee my home, civil society/the legal system/the economy will already have broken down to the point that I won't be able to depend on finding sanctuary on some remote property in a community I haven't invested any time in becoming a member of.

Even if we ignore hypothetical climate refugees from outside the US the internal migration could be on a scale similar to what was seen during the Dustbowl/depression, or even worse depending on our ability to mitigate climate change impacts. Given what we've already seen under Trump I'm pessimistic about how willing the population is going to be to accommodate this migration.

The only ways this seems feasible to me if you are a normal person is if you are willing to invest significant time in becoming a member of whatever community you're setting up this bolthole in (or if you're so rich you can afford to become the patron of a small self-sustaining community).
posted by Wretch729 at 7:14 AM on July 19, 2017 [6 favorites]

You should consider the Pacific Northwest, probably somewhere like Spokane which is east enough to not have the crazy real estate of the Seattle region. I know some people who are buying out there for similar-ish reasons.
posted by joan_holloway at 7:23 AM on July 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

Absolutely, I think the only feasible answer is becoming a part of the community before the urgent need arises. Food security is going to emerge from local enclaves and from knowing the local weather and local growing conditions.

In order for society to survive in a form similar to what we're used to, the entire Midwest is going to have to rearrange their agriculture to grow food for humans rather than cows, irrigation permitting, as imports are going to either vanish or become cost prohibitive. The vegetable basket of the US, California, is going to dry up faster still. There will be migration from the flooded coasts and migration from areas which prolonged drought will make essentially uninhabitable.

The climate of MA is not going to become uninhabitable in our lifetime. Or rather, if it does, we're all fucked beyond belief and there's no safe haven to flee to. There will be more frequent severe weather events, like hurricanes, and potentially harsher, shorter winters, but it will be manageable enough for the population to stay.

Work at food access, gather knowledge, develop a local support network.
posted by lydhre at 7:25 AM on July 19, 2017 [3 favorites]

If you want exposure to (productive) land, you could look into farmland REITs.

But if you really have the land bug, browse,, and to see what other people are doing with their land and how much it goes for. Remember property taxes, too.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 8:03 AM on July 19, 2017 [2 favorites]

Canada is not necessarily a haven. Lately my farming relatives have seen conditions like never before. So much rain and cool temps last fall they couldn't harvest half their crop nor plant this spring. Big stretches of Western Canada are now covered in smoke from forest fires.
posted by canoehead at 8:15 AM on July 19, 2017

You're already in Massachusetts. Assuming the earth continues warming, Mass. will be livable. There's plenty of land in Western Mass., though I don't know about the cost. It's one thing to own land far away; I think you're better off to have land near you and learn to manage it. If you buy land in Canada, you may be able to live there, so that's another option. The advantage of Alaska or Canada is a much lower population. I think if you want a haven in Alaska, it would make sense to visit first and plan to move there if it's a place you might want to live. I'm glad I live in Maine, though I have no significant land.

I sometimes read prepper pages and blogs. The idea of widespread civil unrest seems possible but incredibly unpredictable. I think having neighbors you know and local understanding is very valuable, especially in any dangerous scenario. Despite the prepper idea of living on your land and being self-sufficient, community is what makes everything work. I think we are likely to see crop losses that lead to famine in some regions, loss of forests, loss of fisheries, changes in water availability, and continuing severe weather events. But the US has an astonishing amount of arable land. Most suburban homes have space for gardening. The US is the worst offender in carbon generation, but has the wealth and land to survive the effects, certainly in the near future.

The US is in a constant political crisis, but we need to keep Climate Change in the forefront. The most effective action is government action. I'm not terribly optimistic at the moment, but things can change quickly.
posted by theora55 at 8:17 AM on July 19, 2017

The recent study notyou mentions is the best answer to this question that I'm aware of (see Figure 2 in particular). Since Massachusetts will fare relatively well compared to some other parts of the country, it might make sense to invest in more property near your current location, though well away from potential sea level rise.
posted by pinochiette at 8:46 AM on July 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

One of the considerations I would have is supply chains for the basics in life. You need food, water, electricity, and supplies for repairing a household to deal with a volatile climate at a bare minimum.

The more remote you are from the sources of these things, the more risk you have that interruptions to large-scale sea and land travel will mean things you need will either be grossly expensive or not available at all. Not only does food have to grow, but it also has to travel there. Northerners already deal with this - my sister lived in the Yukon and paid 3x what it costs for milk here because they have to import it across huge distances. Sometimes they run out.

I understand the "head for remoter, colder ground" theory, however you have to consider how abundant the natural resources are in the area you're going to and what needs to be imported. Alaska, IMO, is no-go for that reason.
posted by notorious medium at 9:06 AM on July 19, 2017

So, I live in Fairbanks. You should totally come visit. Summertime is nice. March is nice. January is dark and cold. You could buy some land and build a cabin. It could be your summertime getaway!

But, look, we're one broken-down truck from not having fresh produce in the grocery store for three days. Seriously---there are many days I go to the store and the produce section is a wasteland because a delivery is late. I don't know what happens when the Alaska Highway closes down. Our supply lines are very fragile.

All this to say, if there's societal breakdown due to climate change, who's to know you own X land anyway? And if there's not, then presumably things will muddle along.

(I've only lived up here 8 years, and the effects of global warming/climate change are noticeable. Some of it might be seasonal variation, but not all of it. )
posted by leahwrenn at 9:16 AM on July 19, 2017 [3 favorites]

I would also caution against Alaska because the amount of change in security at the Canada/US Border in less than twenty years in phenomenal and there is no way to predict what it will be like over the next twenty years. Thus, getting to Alaska may be problematic, especially overland.

As far as I am aware, there is not predicted to be the devastating water level change in the Great Lakes as there will be on the coast (although there is clearly huge fluctuations with this year being pretty bad with ILOSLRB trying a new system for regulating the water levels this year. So UP/Wisconsin may be a good choice after all.
posted by saucysault at 9:17 AM on July 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

Lots of great thoughts here already. I'd be interested in even more on the first, general question of whether buying a climate haven is a good idea at all, wherever that might be. Per karbonokapi's comment that, "None of the climate scientists I know are doing this or recommending that anyone do this," any additional thoughts on why they're not? Sounds like some of it is that it's not predictable where such a haven should be given the potential social, civic, and other impacts. Also hearing that it's important to be an established part of a community, and to work towards strengthening it. Still, I wonder if people will look back and say, "Why the heck didn't people buy cheap land in better spots while they could?" Other reasons for or against?
posted by daisyace at 9:39 AM on July 19, 2017

Presuming that you actually wanted to do this (not weighing in on whether it's a good idea or not) I was also going to suggest the Upper Peninsula of Michigan with its proximity to Lake Superior, wildlife for hunting and fishing, and isolation from mass social upheaval being potential pluses. If you end up with land in the Houghton area, you could also be near the brain trust at Michigan Tech, which might be advantageous in a doomsday scenario.
posted by merriment at 9:39 AM on July 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

One item I haven't seen anyone mention is opportunity cost. If you invest the same amount of money over this sort of multi-decade time period, you would expect significant returns. $10,000 invested at 7% for 25 years (roughly the historical inflation-adjusted return of the stock market) would be over $54,000. Even at a much more modest rate of return (say 2.5%) you would nearly double your money. Just buying a random plot of land would mean paying property tax, but not necessarily getting any return on that capital investment. Sure, your land might become much more valuable in the event of a climate catastrophe, but it might become much less valuable (e.g. "oops, the heavy rains broke the dam upstream and now 2/3rds of your land is in the 20-year flood zone"). And of course in the event that your land does become highly valuable your property taxes will go up, so you may be wealthy on paper, but your out-of-pocket expenses will skyrocket. So you're paying for the privilege of taking on a massive financial risk. Finding a way to derive some income from the land would help off-set this but that means managing the property long-distance, which brings with it a whole set of new headaches.

This would be a big financial gamble not only on a worst-case climate scenario, but on your personal ability to predict who will get hurt in a worst-case climate scenario.
posted by firechicago at 10:50 AM on July 19, 2017 [4 favorites]

So I do know some farmers who are speculatively buying land for a warmer future, when their current land may be less productive, but they are working that land -- or having it worked by someone local to it -- between now and then. So, agricultural land is expensive. Inspecting, purchasing, and maintaining agricultural or undeveloped land is much more complicated than suburban or urban real estate. You have to worry about water, you have to worry about flooding, you have to worry about environmental issues, you have to worry about unauthorized use of the land (by tresspassers/people who are unclear on the boundaries/people using your land as a landfill because nobody's there/etc). Agricultural and undeveloped land management by the government in most US states is surprisingly active -- there's an ever-changing matrix of incentives to develop more farmland, more wetlands, more forestlands, etc. This can very dramatically impact the tax bill or potential uses of the land parcel. I mean not every week, or even every year, but buying a piece of land on the theory that "it's just land, it can just sit there" is a very bad idea. Even empty land requires pretty frequent "maintenance," not on the land itself (although sometimes that!) but on the legal and financial issues attached to the land.

So let's say you buy a piece of land in rural northern Wisconsin that you expect to be primo farmland in 30 years. And let's say as the globe warms a lot of people DO move further north in Wisconsin, shifting larger settlements closer to your chunk of land, and let's say the US agricultural system is under significant pressure. I think we can imagine that your inactive, unmanaged, unfarmed land is going to be a significant target for major tax increases or other financial penalties designed to bring that area under cultivation or under active environmental management (to mitigate the effects of global warming). Or if a lot of people bought up parcels in the area as speculative global-warming investments, one can imagine substantial taxes on non-resident owners, or even punitive laws to punish land speculators wanting to make money off global warming. It's also easy to imagine that if Green Bay started sprawling towards your land, it might get eminent domained for new transit or housing. Meanwhile, you'll have spent 30 years keeping squatters off it, preventing incursions by four-wheelers and hunters and other recreational users, keeping people from dumping used electronics on it, preventing drug dealers from starting poppy or pot farms, etc. (Aaaaand potentially getting sued when some dumb-ass teenager on a four-wheeler breaks their spine on your property.)

If the land is something you have a current use for -- even if that use is light recreational (I know some people who buy undeveloped forest and make basically enough to pay the tax bill by allowing private deer hunting and otherwise just enjoy their bit of forest) -- it's not a terrible idea, although it's highly speculative, and you'll be at least semi-actively managing that land for many years. But if it's land you just want to sit there for 30 years until you want it, it's an absolutely awful idea. Land doesn't manage itself, and owning big tracts of land somewhere you don't live is kind of a pain in the ass unless you can afford a property manager for it.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:59 AM on July 19, 2017 [6 favorites]

BTW I often ponder buying myself a bit of Armageddon land, even though I'm a firm believer cities are the place to be in case of catastrophe, but I would get, like, 20 acres on a robust river with a good aquifer a couple hours from me that I could use now as a weekend retreat that would also just happen to be relatively likely to have good agricultural capacity under many global warming scenarios. And then I'd expect to put in some pretty significant time dealing with that bit of property every year, and I'd be budgeting for it to be a cost rather than income, because I'm not sophisticated enough with rural land to make it definitely income-generating. So I don't think it's an inherently ridiculous idea, but I think your way of going about it sounds pretty impractical.

(I don't know exactly what I think I'd DO with the land when it came down to it, because it's not like I'm going to personally farm it and I can imagine too many scenarios where it's neither profitable nor practical to hang on to the land, but that's probably why I never actually bought my imaginary Armageddon land.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:05 AM on July 19, 2017

If climate change is severe enough that you need to move, and the peice of land you've chosen fortunately happens to be in a relatively safe area, millions of other people will also flee to that area and at best the local community will be saturated and resentful, at worst the government will probably commandeer "your" property.

In addition if it's really severe there's a good chance that social unrest and possibly even war could either prevent you from travelling there or result in "your" land being forcibly occupied.

Lots of people do stuff like this, I've been pretty involved in the environmental and organic farming communities for years and I know plenty of people who have bought land, farms, even gone totally off grid in anticipation of climate problems. I've participated in lengthy discussions about how to cope with future urban refugees, changing growing seasons, unavailability of fossil fuels, caring for livestock when the climate is unpredictable, food chain and supply chain disruptions, all kinds of shit. And all that work and experience and learning leaves me confident that I probably *couldn't* survive the disruptions of severe climate events by packing it in and moving to a remote property.

Lots and lots of people do this kind of thing and have been since at least the '70s. Lots of those people are still waiting for the big one to come. But ultimately there are no guarantees and having that property would do basically nothing for your survival without already being connected to the local community, (you need a community!), And having some realistic idea of how to live on it.

If you want a peice of land up north or wherever because you want one then go get it. If you want it because you think it offers some kind of security, prepare to be disappointed.
posted by windykites at 11:10 AM on July 19, 2017 [3 favorites]

There have been environmental catastrophes before. I'm having a hard time finding the relevant links but I've heard a series of lectures about deforestation during antiquity and medieval Europe where huge areas were left barren and deserted because of human greed or need. As I remember it, this would sometimes lead to societal breakdown, and sometimes to renewal. There are examples in Asia and in the Americas as well. The place I live now was almost deserted after late medieval deforestation, and only revived in the second half of the nineteenth century though it was very rich during the Viking age. On the other hand, The Netherlands have built a whole culture on surviving under water.
The point of this historical perspective is to say that you can't really know how people will adapt to climate change. Some towns will thrive, others will disappear. And humans need humans. Regardless of all the rubbish out there, all the evidence points to us being dependent on each other for sustenance, and the place to be if there is significant change is where other people are managing well. Some will manage well because they are prepared; I wouldn't worry about the Netherlands if the oceans rise, because they are used to dealing with high waters. Others will manage because they find advantages in a warmer, wetter climate. It seems that limits of wine growth are moving north. But there will also be millions of people who become climate refugees wether they live on atols in the Indian Ocean, in semi-arid areas in Africa and Asia, or in the Arctic, where current lifestyles are made impossible by the melting ice and permafrost.
I'm in the process of moving here — I still have my city apartment and still live there for long stretches. When I took over the land four years ago, I checked out if it would still exist if the oceans rise 7 meters and also what would happen to the infrastructure if something like that happens. I saw that as prudent. But this is not my armageddon haven, it's my home. If anything makes me safe it will be my neighbors and my relations with them, not the remoteness or the northyness of the land. And those relations can't be built suddenly, in the aftermath of a catastrophe.
posted by mumimor at 11:19 AM on July 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

Still, I wonder if people will look back and say, "Why the heck didn't people buy cheap land in better spots while they could?" Other reasons for or against?

People will definitely do that. But they'll do it with hindsight, after it becomes obvious which areas are benefitting and which are suffering.

20 years ago, your best bet would've been to invest in the real estate of the biggest city of the country you're living in. But nobody knew that, or could've known that, then. The people who did "know" that were making lucky guesses in a sea of unlucky guesses - just like anybody who ends up predicting the best climate change move to make now.
posted by clawsoon at 11:41 AM on July 19, 2017 [4 favorites]

In an environmental catastrophe, how would you get to Fairbanks, especially given that you'd have to cross two borders? You'd probably want someplace you can walk or bike to, as it's not certain there'd be affordable commercial flights or affordable gas for your car. Is there a house on your land in Fairbanks? Is it self-sustaining? Can you grow your own food and do you have a water source? If there's not a house, what are you going to live in if you can't chop down trees?

If this would work, I think you'd need to go full-on survivalist and make sure that piece of land has a house with solar panels as well as water access. And preferably a stockpile of food. And you'd need to have the skills to support yourself--which I think means you'd need to start living this lifestyle now. I'm not sure owning a piece of land will be meaningful if the US is full of climate refugees from places like New York City and Florida.

So, if you really want to do this: maybe the hills of western Mass? At least you could walk there.
posted by bluedaisy at 5:46 PM on July 19, 2017

Thank you, everybody! I'm shelving this idea, with a better understanding of its flaws. Much appreciated!
posted by daisyace at 10:13 AM on July 20, 2017

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