Oregon State University

College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences

Directory of People

David J. Wrathall

David Wrathall photo
Assistant Professor
Discipline: Geography, Environmental Sciences, and Marine Resource Management
Secondary Discipline: Geology and Geophysics
Office: Wilkinson 248
Phone: 541-737-8051
Email: david.wrathall@coas.oregonstate.edu


I am interested in how marginalized people in vulnerable places migrate in order to adapt to climate change impacts. Migration is a geographical decision about how a person will apply his or her labor in pursuit of wages. The concern is that when poor people must rely on their wages to adapt to environmental distress, they risk slipping further into poverty. My research is motivated by three questions:

  1. As climate change renders some spaces uninhabitable, how will this change the spatial distribution of the human population?

  2. How are migration decisions constrained by climate change, local resource politics and political economies?

  3. How can we use the digital infrastructure (i.e. mobile phone networks, and internet usage patterns) to detect migration as a signal of shifting habitability?

Pursuing these questions has led me to investigate displacement and migration around catastrophic flooding along the Atlantic coast of Honduras; glacier recession and shifting water resources in the Cordillera Blanca, Peru; and tropical cyclones in coastal Bangladesh.  I have found that migration takes place in the context of political economies in which national planning privileges certain uses for land, resources and labor. I have also found that migration takes place in politically charged contexts, where powerful actors control access to resources like land, housing and employment. This raises critical questions about the extent to which migration and wages can help people adapt to climate change impacts without slipping into poverty. 

Data from the digital infrastructure for mapping invisible populations

Migration is hard to measure, especially in the context of environmental degradation. For the past eight years, I have been experimenting with methods for measuring migration flows using data from the digital infrastructure. This led to my collaboration with Flowminder, Grameenphone and Telenor using mobile network data to measure displacement and migration flows around tropical storms in Bangladesh. See here for a summary of methods and aims.


Illicit geographies: Narco-deforestation in Central America

My research on the root causes of vulnerability and migration in Central America led me unintentionally to understand narco-trafficking as a major driver of deforestation and environmental degradation. The coastal lowlands of Central America's Caribbean register the highest rates of deforestation in the world, which in the space of a few short years has produced catastrophic flood regimes in coastal communities. What is the cause? Central America emerged in the mid-2000s as the "Gold Spike" in the inter-American drug trade. At its peak in 2013, >90% of all suspect air traffic originating in South America was destined for Eastern Honduras. Annually, billions of dollars in illicit capital flood into Central American economies, these dollars must be laundered. Much of this money is being invested in large-scale cattle ranching. This work published in Science and has been covered in over 300 news outlets, including New York Times, BBC, The Guardian, and National Geographic.

Prospective Students

I am interested in working alongside students to address sustainability questions using the conceptual tools of political ecology and land systems science. I would like to advise students who want to:

  • understand and predict patterns of migration, residence and labor as adaptation to climate change now and moving toward the end of the 21st Century.
  • develop experimental "near sensing" methodologies, for collecting spatial data using digital devices.
  • understand the grounded social and environmental realities of the Drug War in Central America.

I strongly encourage students to apply who have been personally affected by Drug War policies, particularly, the uneven policing and prosecution of drug-related laws in our judicial system. A permanent record of drug-related legal violations will not work against your application: rather it indicates a personal stake in identifying and addressing the harmful outcomes of the Drug War.


Ph.D. (2011) – Geography, King’s College London: “Tropical storms, social-ecological regime shifts and environmental migration: the search for stability in flooded Garífuna communities of the Honduran Caribbean.”

M.P.A. (2005) – Master's of Public Administration and Policy, University of Georgia


Associate Member of the Hugo Observatory on Environment, Migration and Politics at Université de Liège

Previous positions

Post-doctoral research fellowship – National Science Foundation - Coupled Human Natural Systems #1010384 (Jeffrey Bury PI), Department of Environmental Studies, University of California Santa Cruz (2011 - 2013)

Associate Academic Officer – United Nations University-Institute for Environment and Human Security (2013 - 2016)

Adjunct faculty – Department of Environmental Studies, San José State University (2015 - 2016)

Recent publications

Lu X, Wrathall D., Sundsøy PR, Nadiruzzaman M, Wetter E, Iqbal A, Qureshi T, Tatem AJ, Canright GS, Engø-Monsen K, Bengtsson L. (2016). Detecting climate adaptation with mobile network data in Bangladesh: anomalies in communication, mobility and consumption patterns during cyclone Mahasen. Climatic Change. 138(3-4):505-19.

Lu, X, Wrathall D., P. Roe Sundsøy, M. Nadiruzzaman, E. Wetter, A. Iqbal, T. Qureshi, A. Tatem, G. Canright, K. Engø-Monsen, L. Bengtsson (2016). Unveiling hidden migration and mobility patterns in climate stressed regions: A longitudinal study of six million anonymous mobile phone users in Bangladesh. Global Environmental Change38, 1-7.

Nadiruzzaman, M., & Wrathall, D. (2015). Participatory exclusion–Cyclone Sidr and its aftermath. Geoforum64, 196-204.

Tanner, T., Lewis, D., Wrathall, D., Bronen, R., Cradock-Henry, N., Huq, S., ... & Thomalla, F. (2015). Livelihood resilience in the face of climate change. Nature Climate Change5(1), 23-26.

Wrathall, D. & N. Suckall, (2014). Labour migration amidst ecological change. Migration and Development. 5(2), 314-329.

Wrathall, D., A. Oliver-Smith, A. Gencer, M. Reyes, & P. Sakdapolrak. (2014) Problematising Loss and Damage. International Journal of Global Warming. 8(2), 274-294.

 McSweeney, K., Nielsen, E. A., Taylor, M. J., Wrathall, D. J., Pearson, Z., Wang, O., & Plumb, S. T. (2014). Drug Policy as Conservation Policy: Narco-Deforestation. Science343(6170), 489-490.

Wrathall, D. & J. Bury, M. Carey, B. Mark, J. McKenzie, K. Young, M. Baraer, A. French & C. Rampini. (2013) Migration amidst climate rigidity traps: resource politics and social-ecological possibilism in Honduras and Peru.  Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 104(2), 292-304.

Wrathall, D. (2012).  Environmental migration amidst social-ecological regime shift: the search for stability in Garifuna settlements of Northern Honduras. Human Ecology, 40(4), pp. 583–596.

Mustafa, D. & D. Wrathall (2011). Indus Basin Floods of 2010: Souring of a Faustian Bargain? Water Alternatives, 4(1), pp.72–85.

Mustafa, D. & D. Wrathall (2011). The Indus Basin Floods of 2010: the cost of agricultural development. On the Water Front: Selections from the 2010 World Water Week in Stockholm, J. Lundqvist (ed.). Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI), Stockholm. p.129.


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