NewsMarch 11, 2011

Climate Change Places Unique Demands on US Naval Forces, Report Says

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Andrew Freedman

By Andrew Freedman

Climate change poses significant challenges for U.S. naval forces, from the opening of a new operational theater in the Arctic to the potential for sea level rise to damage naval bases, according to a new report released Thursday by the National Research Council, part of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. The report, prepared by military and civilian experts in response to a request from the Navy, echoes recent findings by think tanks and the military itself that climate change may have significant national security implications.

The Academy panel examined the demands the Navy is most likely to face as a result of the changing climate, including more frequent and severe extreme weather events that could lead to more requests for humanitarian assistance, and rising and increasingly acidic seas. The report also addresses naval forces’ scientific research needs, concluding that the Navy should invest in its own capacity to keep tabs on a changing climate system, including through an Arctic observing system, rather than relying solely on civilian scientists.

“One of the take-home messages from the report is that climate change is a serious issue for national security and the Navy, and the Navy is taking it seriously,” says Tony Busalacchi, director of the Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center at the University of Maryland, College Park, who served on the Academy panel.

The military has been studying climate change for several years. The 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review conducted by the Department of Defense found that “climate change and energy will play significant roles in the future security environment.” The Navy has two task forces that focus on climate change-related topics, including the Navy Task Force Climate Change, and the Oceanographer of the Navy, Rear Admiral David Titley, has been prominently encouraging American maritime forces to prepare for climate change.

Rear Adm. David Titley discussing climate change and the U.S. Navy at a 2010 TEDx event

This report also breaks new ground by delving into greater detail about the threat that climate change poses to naval installations at home and abroad, mainly through sea level rise and increased impacts from coastal storms, such as hurricanes. Although climate scientists tend to discuss sea level rise in terms of an increase in the global average sea level, the report makes clear that regional and local variations in sea level due to land sinking, ocean currents, and other factors may have a more significant impact on each facility.

The report calls for the Navy to expect about 1.5 to 5 feet of global average sea level rise by 2100, with a most likely value of about 2.6 feet. “U.S. Navy, Coast Guard, and Marine Corps coastal installations around the globe will become increasingly susceptible to projected climate change,” the report states. 

“Worst-case regional changes are more than an order of magnitude greater than the global mean.”

The study’s co-chair, Adm. Frank Bowman, who is a former director of the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program, says a review of the scientific literature led the committee to conclude that previous estimates of sea level rise, such as those in the 2007 U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, may have been too low.

“Our study suggests that the last IPCC [sea level rise] projection was underestimated,” Bowman says. Bowman adds that studies focusing only on the baseline effects of sea level rise largely miss the point, noting that a sea level rise of one foot does not equate to a two times worse situation compared to a rise of six inches.

“The biggest part… the issue is more the dynamic effect of starting with a higher level of water and then having that higher level of water shoved to shore by hurricanes.”

The report recommends the Navy, Coast Guard, and Marine Corps undertake vulnerability assessments of their facilities to determine the threat from sea level rise, and begin to anticipate actions that may be required to reduce exposure to these risks. 

“Sea-level rise even in the lower range of projections will challenge the utility and perhaps even viability of some shore-based facilities,” the report states.

“In essence we worry that indeed we have all of these facilities, all of these installations… sitting alongside these bodies of water, and we need to get on it,” Bowman says.

Arctic Operations

The fast attack submarine USS Providence (SSN 719) is moored at the North Pole in the Arctic Ocean in 2008 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first submarine polar transit completed by the USS Nautilus (SSN 571) in 1958. Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Yoeman 1st Class J. Thompson/Released

Previous reports have called attention to the national security implications of an increasingly ice-free Arctic. A major concern is in the possibility of a scramble among the eight Arctic nations to secure rights to natural resources, which may set off conflicts over disputed territories, such as the Northwest Passage. Currently, the U.S. maintains the passage is an international waterway but Canada regards it as part of its territorial waters.

The report projects that by 2030 there will be enough ice-free access in late summer to allow for reliable cross-Arctic voyages by ships. Already, the Northwest Passage and Northern Sea Route have briefly become largely ice-free during the summer melt season, and shipping traffic has increased, particularly along the north coast of Russia.

“The rapid changes we have seen and those that are projected imply that there will be open conditions in the Arctic for transportation for longer and longer periods, and over larger areas,” says Cecilia Bitz, a climate researcher at the University of Washington who contributed to the report.

Despite the increasing access to the Arctic, the report finds the Navy is ill prepared to operate in the Arctic region, having halted the routine cold-weather training that was conducted during the Cold War, as well as its Arctic research program. The panel also found the Navy lacks ice-hardened vessels and has no operational control of any icebreakers. Currently, the National Science Foundation controls the operational budgets for the nation’s three icebreakers, rather than the Navy or Coast Guard. The report calls for such control to be shifted to the Coast Guard.

“According to information presented to the committee, the U.S. military as a whole has lost most of its competence in cold-weather operations for high-Arctic warfare,” the report finds.

Bowman says the icebreakers are a key concern, since Congress has not approved funding for new vessels, and several other countries, including non-Arctic nations such as China and South Korea, are boosting their fleets. “We’re somewhat appalled at the state of affairs of the US icebreaker capability,” Bowman says. 

Humanitarian Missions

The USS Comfort, a Navy hospital ship. Credit: Lars Allebrink/Flickr

Another key finding of the report is that climate change is likely to exacerbate existing tensions around the world, and contribute to more climate and weather-related disasters — such as floods, droughts, and severe storms 

— that will place additional burdens upon the Navy to respond with humanitarian assistance. Bowman points to the Navy’s assistance following the 2010 Haiti earthquake as a prime example of this function.

The report calls for the continued use of the Navy’s hospital ships, which can provide medical treatment for thousands of people.

“From a maritime forces point of view, all of these studies that say climate change is real, worry and warn about flooding, droughts, fires, that will lead to migration, that will lead to humanitarian assistance requirements… invariably it’s the Navy, it’s the maritime forces that get called on at least for the first response,” Bowman says. “The Navy finds itself on the scene, because that’s who we are, that’s what we do, we are forward deployed.”

The report also finds that the Navy is in need of a scientific research program to provide key information to assist its forces, including the capacity to make climate forecasts on the timescale of a season to a decade. The University of Washington’s Bitz notes that to date the Navy has relied heavily upon civilian scientists for information relevant to its forces, and that naval information requirements may differ from what civilian scientists are typically focusing on.

She raises the possibility of increased partnerships between the Office of Naval Research and scientists in academia and other government agencies to help the Navy better understand how the changing climate may affect its operations.

The report itself calls for new investments in naval climate science research, stating, “Because of its presence on the global oceans, its long-term global ocean/ice observations and data collection, and its unique physical assets, the U.S. Navy can both benefit from and contribute strongly to a better understanding of the ocean component of climate science.”