What The Least Populated Part of the United States Can Teach Us About Climate Change

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I recently came across a YouTube video that both showed that there’s a severely unpopulated patch of land in the United States that runs from Canada to Mexico, and why this happened. In this article, I want to share some of the findings from the video and explain what they can teach us about the future of climate change’s effects on human populations.

Part of the reason for the mostly empty belt of land in the United States is historical.

There’s one thing he didn’t get into, and that’s the history before the United States. With something like 90% of the native populations killed by European diseases after Columbus started that whole episode of history, the land really was pretty empty. Many people remained, and their populations were recovering, but the Americas seemed like empty, virgin land to European colonists.

Reforestation only takes 50-100 years in most cases, so evidence of previous civilizations and populations was often hidden, but European settlers did notice empty villages and even abandoned cities in many places they took over.

So, to say that the North American lands were populated by British, Spanish, Mexican, French, and Russian settlers isn’t 100% true, but it’s still mostly true and to say this isn’t an insult to native populations. If anything, it’s another ugly mark in history left by Europeans who introduced the diseases that caused the depopulation that ran ahead of them repopulating the lands.

Getting back to the video, US history really affects the population growth (or, regrowth) of the continent. Around 80% of the US population lives in the east because that’s where the growth began and exploded from. People spread from the east coast and into the center of the country of time, and that’s a trend that didn’t really get disrupted until transportation technology and infrastructure like railroads improved.

Once it was easier to travel from New York to San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Cascadia, Chicago became a serious transportation player and cities like Phoenix, Salt Lake, and Denver experienced serious growth.

Why Did This Strip Of Land Get Skipped Over?

But, this growth skipped over the strip of land the video’s teaser shows. To be clear, people do live in this area that stretches from around Big Bend National Park, up through the Texas Panhandle, up through Kansas and Colorado, and on up through Nebraska, the Dakotas, Wyoming, and Montana. Just in Texas, Amarillo and Lubbock are in this zone, but these comparatively small cities and all of the little farm and ranch towns just don’t add up to more than 1% of the US population (about 3.1 million people, less than half of New York City’s population).

A war has even been fought over this land, not only once (with Mexico), but twice (during the Indian Wars). So, it’s not entirely worthless land, either. It’s also an area larger than any state but Alaska, so we’re not talking about some small, cherry-picked ribbon of land that some YouTuber chose to make an interesting video about. It’s 12% of the United States.

So, why did it not get very many people to move in? There are three main reasons for this.

The first is that native tribes in this belt put up some of the most stiff resistance against European colonization, causing people to move past it instead of trying to settle there. This isn’t to say that there wasn’t resistance in other areas, but in this case, it was more successful, even if they lost in the end. This let other areas get a head-start in development compared to the Belt.

But, this doesn’t explain the years since 1900. There was still plenty of opportunity for massive growth, but the problem was just how arid the lands were. The whole areas lies in a rain shadow from the Rocky Mountains, leaving it less suited to agriculture other than ranching, which doesn’t draw in big populations the way farming does.

But, today’s information society should make the areas suitable for more population, right? There’s another problem with this arid area that has kept most people out until fairly recently: wild temperature fluctuations. Arctic air and hot air can both spread pretty easily in the region, making it just not a very pleasant place for people to settle.

Climate Change Is Going To Do All Of This

If you’ve been thinking about climate change as you read that last section or watched the video, you’re probably seeing the connections.

Climate change causes conflict and even warfare. While resource wars between countries and mass migrations are great examples, research has repeatedly shown that smaller scale violence from civil wars to increased crime, to even domestic violence are all increased under climate change scenarios. Places more affected by this will become less pleasant to live in, or you could possibly just stop living because you get killed.

Arid areas are less pleasant for not only human populations, but for agriculture. If you like new food over used food and/or bugs, you won’t be happy as areas without moisture spread and get worse. Intense droughts have shown widespread negative consequences, including threatened drinking water supplies as broader swaths of the US dry up. This could make people move away or for population to grow more in places not affected by this as much.

Unstable temperatures are also a big thing we’ve seen toward the end of last year. And the year before that. And at the beginning of this year. And more and more and more. Climate stability is something we’ve learned to take for granted outside of the Belt, but we’re losing that stability with climate change and making bigger and bigger areas less suitable for places that already have huge numbers of people, with deadly effects.

So, we should all take a long, hard look at the least-populated belt of the United States. Violence, dryness, and climactic instability have kept people from wanting to be there to the point where it’s 12% of the country’s area and only has one percent of the population. It’s that bad, even though there are people who live there.

We have to ask ourselves whether we want the future to make this area far bigger and let it show us our future.

Featured image: screenshot from the above video showing the strip of land.

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

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