Is Duluth becoming one of the nation’s ‘climate refuge’ cities?

Is Duluth becoming one of the nation’s ‘climate refuge’ cities

What is drawing people to Duluth? Climatologist's say the cities culture and Lake Superior are drawing in new residents.

While speaking at University of Minnesota-Duluth’s “Our Climate Futures” conference in 2019, Dr. Jesse Keenan explored the idea of Duluth being an ideal location for climate migration. As a Tulane University Professor of Sustainable Real Estate and Urban Planning, Keenan studies how the built environment adapts and mitigates to climate change.  

“I’ve been studying how demand might change, particularly for people who live in high risk areas. What’s the value of your home going to be? Where should I live?,” explained Keenan. “I also started thinking about not just the high risk areas, but where people might be moving to. So thinking about ascending and receiving zones. Among a variety of cities in the United States, Duluth was on the list.”


Keenan says there is no objective way to rank cities, but Duluth stood out for a variety of reasons. 

“There was a very active local population that spoke to the development of arts and culture, park systems, very solid school systems, and really a top healthcare system as well,” said Keenan. “All of these things were adding up to really speak to a wonderful place to live.”

Another aspect that sets Duluth apart is the proximity to Lake Superior.

“Freshwater was one of the highest things on the list,” said Keenan. “Water is the new oil, right? As the world becomes challenged with water scarcity, we have to rethink where we’re going to live. Places like Phoenix simply won’t be all that livable in the future. They’re going to run out of water. Being near one of the largest sources of freshwater on Earth is a huge, huge advantage for a place like Duluth.”

Keenan’s 2019 lecture was just the start of the conversation. 

“Duluth has become kind of the poster child for people going to start moving because of climate change, and if so, where to,” said UMD Bureau of Business and Economic Research Director Monica Haynes. “A colleague of mine, Kim Downer, in my department and I both said, it seems like maybe it would be beneficial to actually do some real research on this topic. “Maybe we could provide some insights or add value to the conversation about what it might mean for Duluth, who might be impacted, is it really happening, can we put any numbers behind it.”

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A mini grant from the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment funded the initial study.


“We had initially wanted to do like a much larger study, but the amount of funding that we got, we ended up just doing a qualitative analysis, interviewing experts in Duluth, in housing, and the nonprofit world, and climate scientists, people around the state who kind of think about this topic a lot and are looking at this issue,” said Haynes. “We started with just a handful of people, and then as we talked to them, they would often suggest additional folks to talk to. So that was basically the process, looking at the literature and the research that’s already been done and then trying to hold these conversations with people in our community that have knowledge or kind of an understanding about this and have been thinking about the topic.” 

Although a lot of the research is focused on the future, climate migration is becoming a reality

“People don’t get up in the morning. You’re like, ‘that’s it. I’m out of here because of climate change’. It’s one of many stresses in the push and pull of how people move,” said Keenan. “Then you see places like Duluth that are pulling them. You know, that’s the push. But the pull is that, hey, here’s a beautiful place that you can live that has a very strong culture.”

The experts stress that no place is fully climate-proof. 

“We’re right on the largest lake in the world. I don’t think that there’s any concern about it drying up, but the lake levels are getting lower, and the water temperature is getting warmer in the lake,” said Haynes. “We access water from Lake Superior, but a lot of the surrounding areas don’t. They’re dependent on aquifers, just like everywhere else in the country. We have seen droughts in Minnesota over the past few years. It’s not like we’re immune to those same weather patterns and conditions. So to think that Duluth is immune to the impacts of climate change is not the case. Just because we’re located on Lake Superior doesn’t mean that we won’t still have a lot of those same negative consequences of climate change.”

Research is happening, both from a scientific perspective and a social viewpoint.

“This is a very early area of academic inquiry, but we know it’s well underway. We’re getting lots of signals, very clear signals in the market that this is happening. So we just have to listen,” said Keenan. 


With people moving for a variety of reasons, Haynes says it is difficult to know how many move for this reason. The next round of research will be to put more firm numbers to the population changes seen over the past few years. 

“It’s very unlikely that a person would make a big life decision, like moving their family without considering a lot of different factors.Climate change is getting a lot of attention, but where is that in terms of job and house and family and everything else, society, culture?,” explained Haynes. “Our goal is to then come away with a little bit better understanding of the new residents or newer residents, kind of how many of them were actually considering climate change and to what extent was that a motivating factor.” 

Another aspect is that with housing availability and affordability already an issue in Duluth, many question whether the city could handle an influx of people. 

“I think one big takeaway for me was how much equity and housing and income inequality will probably play a factor in climate migration in the future, especially because most of the people that are moving at this point are doing so in a very proactive way. They are probably wealthier. They can afford to move kind of anywhere throughout the country they like. They’re usually people that are thinking a lot about climate change and maybe have that as a concern. So they can afford to buy high priced desirable properties for cash, maybe tear down older properties and build new ones,” explained Haynes. “That really puts pressure on our community when it comes to housing prices, who can afford to live in certain neighborhoods, and who is then pushed out of those neighborhoods and forced to live in cheaper housing or less desirable areas.”