The Upcoming Equalizer

Sorry it’s been a while since I’ve written.  Holidays, family time and the real gig sometimes get in the way.

Anyway, today I’m going to play a little bit of futurist.  I stumbled onto an idea when I considered a question I had regarding one of my passions, University of Michigan college football.  Michigan and its conference, the Big Ten, have taken a back seat to other college football powers over the last 30-40 years, after winning numerous national championships and bowls after World War II.  I posed a question to my favorite Michigan football blog, MgoBlog, about what it would take to bring the Big Ten back to national dominance, and the blogger’s facetious answer was, “global warming”.

Then, in the midst of the heat wave that has gripped the Midwest and East Coast this past week, I read an article in the Atlantic Cities that identifies several American cities that wouldn’t be where they are today without the existence of air conditioning. The article notes that some Sun Belt metros, like Miami, are 20 times more populous now than they were 70 years ago.

That got me thinking.

I did a quick rundown of U.S. Census data in three separate counts — 1890, 1950 and 2010.  I wanted to see something very simple — the percentage of population in Northeastern and Midwestern states for each census, relative to the nation’s total population. The three censuses were selected for specific reasons — 1890 because it was at the outset of rapid immigration to American industrial cities; 1950  because it was at the outset of post-WWII migration from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt (and the spread of the general use of air conditioning); 2010 as the most recent census.  I think most people who pay attention to such matters generally know about this, but this is noteworthy:

1890 1950 2010
Northeast/Midwest Share of US Population 63.2% 55.1% 39.6%

Yes, the share of US population in the Northeast and Midwest is 50% less than what it was 120 years ago.

I don’t begrudge people for making the switch from North to South; constant migration is as American as apple pie.  But I do think, in a very long term sense, that the numbers may approach the levels that existed circa 1950 — and global warming may play a huge role in it.
The poor economy of the desert Southwest since the 2008 financial crisis has been well noted.  Las Vegas and Phoenix have been particularly hurt.  I would argue that the economic stress for the Southwest is just the beginning.  My guess is that water scarcity will take hold in the Southwestern states over the next 5-10 years and cause residents and businesses to consider locations with more dependable water supplies — like the Midwest.  
I believe the Southeast will suffer from a more complex water problem that will take a little longer to shake out.  Climate change will promote more weather extremes in the Southeast and bring cycles of drought and deluge.  Many Southern cities are dependent on aquifers or reservoirs that will shrink or grow depending on the shifting weather patterns, and again residents and businesses will begin to consider location with abundant fresh water supply like the Great Lakes.
My last point — if this does indeed happen, that means there will be some small and midsize Midwest cities will likely grow far beyond their present size, in the same way that a Las Vegas, Phoenix, Orlando or Charlotte has grown since World War II.  Who will that be?  Port Huron, MI?  Erie, PA?  Green Bay, WI?  Duluth, MN?
I suspect we will know the answer around the year 2040.

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