Rising Seas, Drought, Storms Cited as ‘Threat Multipliers’
By Rich Heidorn Jr.
When Hurricane Michael’s 130-mph winds flattened a swath of the Florida Panhandle in October, Tyndall Air Force Base saw its marina destroyed, power lines downed and all of its hangars and 17 of the base’s $339 million F-22 Raptors damaged.
With the base facing potentially several years of repairs, the 95th Fighter Squadron’s F-22s and 36 airmen were moved to bases in Virginia, Alaska and Hawaii, at least temporarily.
The hurricane was the latest example of the severe weather that scientists say will occur increasingly in the future because of climate change. Although Commander in Chief Donald Trump has dismissed climate change as a threat, the Defense Department has been planning for it since at least 1977, when the Army Corps of Engineers’ Institute for Water Resources conducted its first study. The first National Conference on Climate Change and Water Resources Management, which the corps took part in, was held in 1991. (See related stories, Military not Waiting for Trump’s Resilience ‘Solution’ and US Climate Report Spells out Coming Challenges to Industry.)
Frank Rusco, who oversees the Government Accountability Office’s work on a variety of federal government energy programs, credited the department’s “mission-readiness focus.”
“In terms of resilience and responding to climate change, they’re definitely a leader. They have been thinking about these things deeply and for a long time because they want to [protect] their supply lines, their fire capacity, their infrastructure,” he said in an interview. “Other agencies, if that’s their business, like [the Federal Emergency Management Agency], of course, they’re thinking about it. … And [for] a lot of other agencies probably that’s pretty far from their radar screen.”
October’s hurricane wasn’t the first severe storm to damage DOD facilities. In 2012, storm surge from Hurricane Sandy destroyed almost 8 miles of water and sewer piping at Naval Weapons Station Earle, N.J., resulting in a one-month disruption of service and causing an estimated $24 million in damage.
In 2013, Fort Irwin, Calif., experienced three power outages within 45 days as a result of flash floods from extreme rain events.
In at least two instances — Homestead Air Force Base, Fla., after Hurricane Andrew (1992) and Langley Air Force Base, Va., after Hurricane Isabel (2003) — storm damage has been severe enough to cripple operational missions for a time.
In addition, thawing permafrost, melting sea ice and rising sea levels have increased erosion at several Air Force radar early warning and communication installations on the Alaskan coast, damaging infrastructure, including utilities. As one example of the potential costs, the Air Force spent $46.8 million to repair erosion to the Cape Lisburne Long Range Radar Station’s 5,450-linear-foot rock seawall, which protects the base’s airstrip from waves.
Melting Arctic sea ice also has created a new venue for potential international conflicts, opening the region to shipping, oil and gas drilling and mining. Russia has increased its military presence in the region.
More ominously, DOD strategists say climate change could exacerbate regional tensions, with conflicts over scarce water resources and climate-driven mass migrations leading to increased terrorism and other conflicts.
“Climate change is impacting stability in areas of the world where our troops are operating today,” Defense Secretary James Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee in written testimony early this year. “It is appropriate for the combatant commands to incorporate drivers of instability that impact the security environment in their areas into their planning.”
Retired U.S. Marine Brig. Gen. Stephen Cheney said a four-year drought that caused crop failures was one of the contributors to the Syrian Civil War.
“Syria’s civil war is a poster child for climate change as a national security threat,” Cheney, CEO of the national security think tank the American Security Project, told Congressional Quarterly.
Members of Congress have resisted Trump administration efforts to downplay the threats. In July, 34 Democratic and 10 Republican members of Congress signed a letter to Mattis expressing concern over a Washington Post report that the administration was attempting to scrub references to “climate change” from DOD’s annual, congressionally mandated report on the subject. The Post reported that all but one of 23 references to “climate change” contained in a December 2016 draft were deleted or changed to “extreme weather” or “climate” in the final report submitted to Congress in January.
In its 2018 defense bill, Congress required each service to report their 10 bases most vulnerable to climate change.
For the climate change report released in January, DOD surveyed more than 3,500 defense installations worldwide on whether they had experienced effects from climate risks. More than half said they had, with many citing multiple risks. Drought was the most cited impact (782) followed by wind (763) and non-storm surge related flooding (706). Others cited extreme temperatures (351), flooding from storm surge (225) and wildfires (210).
One of the biggest concerns for military planners is the world’s largest naval base in Norfolk, Va., where most of the land surrounding the installation is less than 10 feet above sea level. The U.S. expects sea level in the region to rise to between 2.5 and 11.5 feet by 2100. The Navy is concerned about a loss of military readiness when sailors and other employees living off-base are unable to reach work because of flooding. Norfolk city officials estimate improving storm water pipes, flood walls, tide gates and pumping stations will cost hundreds of millions; some residents may have to abandon their homes.
A 2014 GAO report said that while DOD had begun developing sea-level-rise scenarios for 704 coastal locations, it had not set milestones for completing the tasks (GAO-14-446). It also reported that department planners lacked guidance beyond current building codes for how they should incorporate climate change into construction and renovation programs. It said base officials rarely propose climate change adaptation projects because the services’ funding processes did not include climate change in the criteria used to rank potential projects.
In November 2017, GAO reported that DOD had implemented one recommendation and had taken steps toward implementing the remaining two recommendations from its 2014 findings (GAO-18-206).
The new report added six more recommendations, “including that DOD require overseas installations to systematically track costs associated with climate impacts; re-administer its vulnerability assessment survey to include all relevant sites; integrate climate change adaptation into relevant standards; and include climate change adaptation in host-nation agreements.” The department agreed with all but two of the recommendations.