Nathan Phillips, a professor of earth and environment at Boston University, speaks Wednesday during Build Maine, a two-day conference in Skowhegan. Phillips is explaining the impact of climate change, including how sea rise will likely cause many people to move inland, including locations such as Somerset County. Ann Rieke photo

SKOWHEGAN — More than 200 people attended a conference in Skowhegan this week that included a talk by a climate expert who predicted Skowhegan and other inland communities in the coming decades will see an influx of climate migrants displaced by rising sea levels and temperature extremes.

Nathan Phillips, an earth and environment professor at Boston University, was a primary speaker at Build Maine, a two-day series of lectures and workshops that focused on the future of urban planning in Maine.

The conference is in its 10th year and was held in Skowhegan for the second time. The event, which concluded Thursday, brought together a range of people involved in town and city planning, from elected officials and financiers to construction professionals and engineers.

Phillips’ address Wednesday spoke to the impact that climate migration will have on Maine’s inland towns and cities, and urged officials to plan for an influx of new residents within the next 100 years due to the climate crisis. He particularly encouraged investing in housing opportunities.

Some projections provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration indicate sea levels will rise by about 8 feet by 2100, Phillips said. Millions of people living in coastal communities across the country will be displaced and have to move inland, he said.

He shared a 2020 scientific study predicting that by 2100, Aroostook, Franklin, Oxford, Piscataquis and Somerset counties will receive climate migrants from counties along the coast.


Attendees take part Wednesday in an exercise during Build Maine, a two-day conference in Skowhegan. The conference provides a forum for leaders in transportation planning, real estate development, public service and other areas to share insights on reinvigorating and strengthening Maine’s communities. Ann Rieke photo

Maine will see relatively fewer extremes in temperature than southern states, Phillips said, and might experience an influx of people moving north to escape oppressive heat.

“This is forced migration,” Phillips said, referring to the data as “terrifying,” but also framing it as an opportunity for economic revitalization in rural communities.

“We have an opportunity to embrace migration,” he said.

By investing in infrastructure and housing developments now, Phillips said a small community with an “urban core,” such as Skowhegan, could significantly expand its economy.

“There is so much opportunity to rethink how we use urban space and reorient it for people,” Phillips said. “We need to build.”

Strategies for building out Maine towns was the focus of the rest of the conference. Workshops covered a variety of topics, including housing, rezoning, land banks, tax increment financing, trail planning and even some street painting in downtown Skowhegan.

Skowhegan already is seeing historic investments — totaling about $650 million — in its downtown area. This month, the Mary Street apartments, a new affordable housing development, is expected to welcome its first residents. Earlier this week, New Balance broke ground on an expanded manufacturing facility that is expected to bring 200 new jobs into town and double the facility’s output.

“Skowhegan is truly a place to watch,” Town Manager Christine Almand said Monday at a groundbreaking ceremony at New Balance.

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