Massachusetts Department of Public Health seal Massachusetts Environmental Public Health Tracking

Vulnerable Residents and Areas

Certain populations are particularly vulnerable to changing climate effects. The term "vulnerable populations" refers to people or groups that may be more susceptible to the health effects of climate change. Vulnerability to climate change varies across time and location, across communities, and among individuals within communities. People and communities differ in their exposures, their inherent sensitivity, and their capacity to respond to, adapt to and cope with climate change related health impacts. This is summarized in the figure below.

Factors leading to vulnerable population health impacts

  • Exposure Exposure is contact between a person and one or more biological, psychosocial, chemical, or physical stressors, including stressors affected by climate change
  • Sensitivity Sensitivity is the degree to which people or communities are affected, either adversely or beneficially, by climate variability or change
  • Adaptive Capacity Adaptive capacity is the ability of communities, institutions, or people to adjust to potential hazards, to take advantage of opportunities, or to respond to consequences
  • These are three impacts to the vulnerability of human health to climate change.

Health Impacts Injury, acute and chronic illness (including mental health and stress-related illness), developmental issues, and death

Vulnerability Mapping Tool

When considering the health impacts of climate change, it is important to identify individuals that may be more susceptible because of exposure to the climate hazards and related health risks, pre-existing health and environmental conditions in the community, socioeconomic factors and/or the capacity to adjust and recover from climate impacts. For example, people living in floodplains, coastlines, and other at-risk locations are more vulnerable to extreme weather but may also be vulnerable to social and economic stressors such as poverty. Many of these stressors can occur simultaneously or consecutively resulting in the “accumulation” of multiple, complex stressors that further reduce their ability to respond to and recover from climate-related events.

Health surveillance and environmental quality data are available on the EPHT portal, and data on the social determinants of health, location of potential climate hazards (e.g. flood zones) and factors that increase resilience (e.g., open space) on the Vulnerability Mapping Tool can together be used to characterize community vulnerability to climate change. Please see Mapping Data Sources for more information.

Layers Available in the Vulnerability Mapping Tool
Community Layers Census Tract Layers
Percent of population under 5 years Percent of population under 5 years
Percent of population under 15 years Percent of population under 15 years
Percent of population over 65 years Percent of population over 65 years
Percent of population 65 and over living alone Percent of population 65 and over living alone
Percent of population living alone Percent of population living alone
Percent of population not white Percent of population not white
Percent with less than high school education Percent with less than high school education
Percent below poverty Percent below poverty
Percent of residential land in flood zones
Estimated population in flood zones
Percent of public open space