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Military seeks warning of human migrations

Migrant workers harvest sweet potatoes in Suwannee County in October.

Natural and agricultural disasters can lead to massive human migrations, and a University of Florida scientist will lead a group that will improve our ability to predict the patterns of those movements.

Rachata Muneepeerakul, an associate professor in agricultural and biological engineering in UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, has received a $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense to study human movement patterns. UF’s portion of the grant is about $3 million. The balance of the grant is for the work done by researchers at other universities with whom Muneepeerakul will collaborate.

The Department of Defense wants to know as far in advance as possible when and where these mass migrations are likeliest to happen. That way, the federal government can know when and where to deploy military force and where to send humanitarian aid, as just two possible examples, he said.

“Migration can potentially cause many problems: social or political tension, depletion of resources, crime, etc.,” Muneepeerakul said. “If we cannot adequately predict migration patterns, we won’t be able to devise plans to deal with these problems and will be caught off guard.”

To predict migration patterns, researchers will try to develop a modeling platform to improve scientists’ ability to anticipate human movements caused by different environmental changes.

While many researchers have proposed migration theories, they’ve been fragmented, Muneepeerakul said. Some researchers have focused on what caused the migration or what happens once people arrive at their new location. This study will pull together work from researchers in many fields at UF and at other universities.

Examples of case studies that the researchers might investigate include:

Hurricane Mitch: The second deadliest hurricane on record, the hurricane devastated much of Central America in 1998, causing historic flooding. Nearly 3 million people left the area, he said. Many people migrated to the U.S., especially Mississippi, Alabama and North Carolina for jobs in food processing, construction and the service sector.

Hurricane Maria: Last year, Hurricane Maria destroyed Puerto Rico’s communications systems and other infrastructure. Many of those displaced residents wound up in Florida and the northeastern U.S.

Drought: More than 30 million people need food and more than 10 million of them are on the brink of famine in Somalia, Nigeria, South Sudan and Yemen.


By: Brad Buck

This article was featured in the Fall 2018 issue of Explore Magazine. 

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