Ideas

Will Boston’s crazy snowfalls make people leave?

An endless winter has everyone threatening to flee for good. Who might really go—and how it could shift the population

hal mayforth for the Boston Globe

THis year’s winter has been one for the ages. Snow showers last week put Boston over 100 total inches for the season, within half a foot of the 1995-1996 record. A blizzard seems to hit every week, closing the roads and disabling mass transit. Low temperatures have been well below average. Boston public schools have been closed eight days for weather. One hundred fifty-three collapsed roofs had been reported in the state as of this past Monday, and there have been at least 11 deaths attributable to the unrelenting snow and cold. Economists and other researchers will have to wait longer to judge the full toll: the astronomical costs of additional plowing and lost economic activity, the impact of snow days on student achievement, and the total number of cold-related deaths, which one economist estimates could end up being 65 percent higher than normal.

But another question that no one may yet be tracking is whether Bostonians will stand by the vows they made in their worst moments of exasperation, as ice dams piled up and the kids were trapped at home for yet another day. “That’s it, I’m out of here,” the chorus goes. “Never again.” “I’m moving to Hawaii.” Do people really mean it? Will an epic, fatal, routine-disrupting winter actually cause residents to move away or avoid picking Boston as a place to live in the first place?

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It is, of course, impossible to know for sure. “There’s not a whole lot of scientific evidence out there on big snow events and the demographic impacts,” says Robert McLeman, a geographer at Wilfred Laurier University in Ontario and author of the book “Climate and Human Migration.”

But experts do know some things about how people make decisions about where to live based on weather, climate, and serious natural disasters—and about exactly who is likely to be driven out when the going gets tough (or icy). We asked them to speculate about whether we’re really likely to see a parade of moving trucks headed out of town this summer, or whether, as impossible as it might seem now, a few daffodils and crocuses might persuade Bostonians to stick around after all.

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For the most part, weather is not the top consideration in people’s decisions about where to live. Last year the Census Bureau issued a report on the reasons for moving given by 36 million people who moved between 2012 and 2013. For people who moved more than 500 miles, 48 percent moved for job-related reasons, while 32 percent moved for family-related reasons. Fewer than 1 percent moved for reasons related to climate.

Still, when things get really bad, as they have these past two months, nature can have a major impact on our options. One ready example is Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005. The storm destroyed huge swaths of housing, especially in low-lying areas where the city’s poorer residents lived. As a result, “New Orleans became whiter, older, and wealthier, because those were the people best able to come back and recover their homes,” says Elizabeth Fussell, a demographer at Brown University and an expert on the demographic consequences of the storm. She points out that natural disasters tend to widen existing inequalities. “Those who have the most resources are best able to avoid the worst effects of the disaster,” Fussell says, “and those with the fewest resources tend to feel impacts most harshly.”

The most obvious example of this in Boston has been the problems with the MBTA, which have fallen hardest on people who don’t own cars, can’t substitute a taxi for the T, or can’t afford to miss a shift at work. Still, they may also be less able to leave. Boston residents with more resources might find it easier than those with fewer to take an Uber when the T is closed; they’d also be better equipped to simply abandon the city altogether should they choose. The red-hot Boston housing market helps make that a real possibility.

Daily snowfall in Boston

On March 15, this year's snowfall broke the record-setting total from 1995-1996.
Data through Mar. 23, 2015 at 11 a.m.

DATA: National Weather Service, Boston; NOAA

Globe Staff

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“We see a very strong relationship between economic conditions and migration. When times are tough, people have a harder time selling their home,” says Stanley Smith, an economist with the Bureau of Economic and Business Research at the University of Florida, who has studied the characteristics of Florida snowbirds.

Hurricane Katrina was orders of magnitude more severe than anything Boston has endured this year, of course, but it does provide useful lessons about how economics affects decisions about where to live. Rising homeowner’s insurance rates are one way that natural disasters reshuffle who’s able to afford to live where. Following a spate of winter storms in 2011, plus a tornado that hit Springfield that June and Hurricane Irene that August, many insurance agencies in Massachusetts raised homeowner’s insurance rates. The same could happen this year. “I would say, as the companies are paying out hundreds of millions of dollars or more, they’ll try to recoup it over the next few years with rate increases,” says Jay Dooley, owner of Dooley Insurance Agency in Ipswich, which has processed around 40 ice dam claims in the last couple weeks. According to Fussell, that could motivate moves; as she says, “Homeowners would need to begin to say, can I even afford to live in my home?”

Another major group who may be discouraged by the cold and snow is the elderly. Winter is especially hard on older people, who have a harder time clearing their sidewalks and roofs, are more sensitive to cold, and have more to fear from falling. Fussell and McLeman speculate that the most likely demographic effect of this winter is an out-migration of older residents. That could have real demographic implications, McLeman says: “The overall age of the population could actually start to go down in coming years.”

Some older people are more likely to leave than others. New Englanders already account for 39 percent of the estimated more than 800,000 people who spend winters in Florida and the rest of the year up north. In addition to being older, these snowbirds tend to be whiter, wealthier, healthier, and better educated than the population overall. Smith thinks this winter probably won’t cause older Bostonians to up and leave, but he thinks it could make a difference for people who were already considering escaping. “It might affect some people’s timing, that is, they might decide to move sooner than they would have otherwise,” he says. Overall, though, he expects that this particular winter “would have a very small impact, if any at all,” on people’s decisions to move.

Fussell views things the same way. She notes that most Americans never move outside of the state in which they were born. Still, over the past couple months, Fussell has observed the difficult time that older people in her neighborhood have had shoveling. She says she can see how this winter might cause some of them to reconsider where they live.

“It probably wouldn’t be the main reason why they would migrate, but it might be the straw that broke the camel’s back, or the straw that was the second to last straw,” she says.

Of course, snow is nothing new in Boston, and it’s unlikely that by itself this winter will change how people view the city. A bigger question—and one nagging at a lot of Massachusetts residents right now—is whether this winter is indicative of winters to come. Paul O’Gorman, an associate professor of atmospheric science at MIT, has published research suggesting that climate change could lead to an increase in the frequency of extreme snowstorms. If this intensity of snowfall becomes the new norm, we may come to look back on this winter not as an outlier, but as a turning point—the season in which Boston became a less desirable place to live.

For this reason, the confluence of snowstorms over the past month could have surprising, if subtle, effects on the political makeup of Massachusetts. Fussell imagines that people who consider climate change to be a fact might be more likely to view this winter as a harbinger—and therefore, a reason to leave—than people who dismiss global warming and see this winter as a fluke.

“Because Democrats are more likely to perceive climate change as real, maybe they’d be more likely to move than Republicans,” she says. If that were so, it would certainly be one of the most surprising consequences of this winter: a way that a heavy dusting of white could turn a blue state a bit more purple.

Kevin Hartnett writes the Brainiac blog for Ideas. He can be reached at kshartnett18@gmail.com.

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