Climate Nomads

I moved to California in 1979 to get away from two really hard winters in the Midwest. I was shoveling snow off the roof of my mother’s home so that it would not collapse and was able to jump off that roof into the drifts without getting hurt. That’s how much snow there was!  I vividly remember thinking, “I don’t have to be doing this. I could live somewhere without snow!”

My move to California, while sparked by weather, was no means focused solely on climate. Back then, it represented a start of a new life, a promising future, and a successful career doing something I loved.

Seasons

I arrived in northern California in September. Back “home”, autumn was marked by brisk temperatures, fiery changes to foliage, the dropping of leaves, and a distinctive change in scent. It smelled like Fall. Nothing like that was happening in California. And that was a shock. I assumed that California would be just like home!

Instead, September and October had the warmest of days and the coolest of nights, but all within a relatively ambient range of 50 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit. There were color changes, but only after the grapes were harvested, and then in a muted palette of ambers and plum. Leaves stayed on trees during the fall, and flowers seemed to bloom year-round. Especially in January!  Who knew?

Christmas was hard for me those first few years. December and January used to be rainy months in California, and much of the intensity and frequency of storms was determined by the flow of the Pacific Ocean. If you live on the West Coast, you speak of El Niño and La Niña winters. The only White Christmas to be found is in the mountains. Even though I had moved to get away from the snow, it was such a part of my make-up that not having it made me sad.

Fire

I live in “Wine Country” eight months of the year. The other four are now considered “Fire Season”. What used to be a bustling harvest season is now a time of hypervigilence. All of us pay attention when the winds come up and the humidity drops, since this is perfect weather for fires to spread. Residents are given instructions on how to cut back brush and create fire blocks, how to protect roofs and eaves so that embers don’t burn houses down.

I suppose the climate has been changing all along, but it is changing faster now, and with catastrophic consequences. In the last few years, huge fires have ravaged California, Oregon, and Washington. While there has historically been the occasional fire that caused losses, these fires are now an annual event and the amount of loss unimaginable.

Drought

Water is an ever-present issue in the western part of the United States. My neck of the woods sits on top of a fresh water aquifer that has provided adequate supplies for agriculture and people for hundreds of years. It is filled by winter rains and run off from the hills that surround our valley. But the last few years haven’t produced much rain, so the aquifer level is dropping.

Historically, the valley where I live supported dairy herds, orchards (apple, pear, nuts, and olives), strawberries, and truck farms that grew tomatoes, corn, and lettuce. It has a long history of small vineyards, but in the last 25 years, most of this diversity has been replaced by a single crop: grapes. While our population has remained relatively stable for over this time, it has seen an increase in the last several decades. All of this puts added stress on our limited water supply.

Earthquakes

I live within several hundred yards of a major earthquake fault line. I am also centrally located within a 50-mile radius of three other major fault lines, each of which is predicted to shift in my lifetime. The 1906 earthquake that caused such terrible destruction due to fires in San Francisco, also did major damage in my neck of the woods.

My first up close and personal encounter with a major earthquake happened in 1986. There have been many smaller and far less problematic ones since. Logic suggests that living in an area with a high probability of the earth moving more than it should is not a good idea, yet housing here is being built like crazy. And, even though my husband and I did talk about the risk of earthquake before we moved here, it was not a deciding factor.

We Were Nomads Before

There is an implicit understanding that “home” is something that is rooted and permanent. It is a place we come “from” and return “to”. It is fixed. Because of this, “home” is something that acquires value over time, and becomes an asset that can be passed to future generations.

It has not been all that many generations, however, where this has been the norm. Our species were nomads for many thousands of years until we started to grow crops and transitioned from hunter/gatherer to agrarian. Even within so-called modern times, there are a small number of cultures that still live off the land and follow herds or game and do not have a permanent home.

Because our understanding of “home” is fixed, it may be challenging to imagine having to move from place to place, but that is actually more of a probability, given the impact that climate change is having on us.

Needing a Different Metric for Retirement Planning


Because of these catastrophic realities, choosing a single place for retirement doesn’t make much sense. We are accustomed to thinking about cost of living, taxes, proximity to family, access to preferred pursuits and climate as deciding factors in where we will live once we retire. That formula has changed and we need to add some new and challenging considerations:

      1. Potential for exposure to catastrophic events
      2. Frequency of catastrophic events
      3. Insurability/replacement costs
      4. Timelines (e.g., seasonal vs. generational)
      5. Access to escape routes/temporary housing
      6. Alternative living arrangements until rebuilding/replacement completed
      7. Sustainability of resources (water)
      8. Exposure to extreme weather (heat/cold/smoke/rain/drought)
      9. Investment prospects
      10. Risk

Insurance companies and actuaries know this territory well. But there are few among us who are thinking along these lines. Most of us find ourselves in shock when a disaster happens, and then are grateful for the response of volunteers who show up to help in the immediate aftermath. The problem is that we keep returning to the places that put us in peril and expect things to be without risk. That just doesn’t make sense any more.

Becoming a Climate Nomad

I am betting on becoming a climate nomad. I am scouting out places I can live, temporarily for months at a time, that have the things that are essential for my quality of life. A temperate climate, strong Wi-Fi, plenty of water, access to fresh food and adequate supplies of fuel. It may be that I end up buying a small trailer or mobile home so that I can more easily move when I have to and I can minimize my exposure to loss.

Since there is only one of me, I should be able to do this relatively easily. But that is not the case for those of you who have family you want to be close to, who have financial ties to a physical place, who have need of services and resources that may be specific to your geographic area.

It may be that my thinking is all out of whack, and there is nothing that I am going to need to change before I die. I hope so, because I really love where I live, the friends I have here, and the sense of belonging that comes with knowing an area intimately. But just in case I am right, I want to keep my options open.

4 comments

  1. Wise thinking, Mary.. Good to protect yourself with options. Some would say there is no getting away from risk in life. True. However the risk to our well being is very high now. Scary. I like the image of you with an air stream in the driveway. Who knows what will serve us in these precarious times.. Fire earthquakes, floods, weather co-vid. violence. war, hunger.. Unbearable. And yet we rise each day with intention to live with love amidst the fear.

    1. I love your last point — we do rise each day. Thank you for being so very wise yourself!

  2. Mary… great post this morning. You’ve provided excellent motivation to exercise and stay strong so mobility and flexibility of body (along with mind) can facilitate a possible nomadic life – or, more immediately, the ability to live confidently, free of fear and anxiety, with the knowledge we can move quickly, at a moment’s notice, if we need to, from whatever disaster necessitates us doing so. Growing up I used to shovel a lot of snow too, banking the house so the water pipes didn’t freeze during what used to be 40 degree below zero winters in northern Minnesota. Survival, then and now, meant you had to remain fit and strong physically as well as mentally, continually problem solving. I think that Midwestern “survival’ heritage has served us well and continues to inform our strategies for the “ability” to manage one disaster after another, which we can “choose” to do – or not, and remain frozen in fear. Your “fixed” versus flexible thinking about “home” plus a list of some considerations most helpful. I like lists. Makes things real, easier to see clearly versus thoughts just floating around in one’s head willy-nilly. Staying grounded and not freaking out is hard, but necessary, as I see it, not only for survival, but to continue to live a life worth living. Much to be thankful for. Thanks for some mental grounding. As Barbara said above, and years earlier, Maya Angelou…And Still I Rise. .

    1. There is something about our shared Midwestern upbringing, isn’t there! Thanks also for the validation of how helpful lists are — I go back and forth — not wanting to be too prescriptive, but knowing that it is a concrete tool. Thanks as always for your shared experience!

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