UCAR Congressional Briefing: Weather and climate risks to national security

Rising seas, more severe storms pose military challenges

Sep 11, 2019 - by David Hosansky

WASHINGTON, D.C. —Increasingly powerful hurricanes, sea level rise, and other changing aspects of Earth's climate system are posing new challenges to the U.S. military, a panel of experts said at a congressional briefing today. The panelists emphasized the importance of research and new technology to provide critical weather and climate intelligence to military leaders and strengthen the nation's resilience.

The briefing, "Weather and Climate Risks to National Security," was sponsored by the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR), a nonprofit consortium of 117 colleges and universities focused on research and training in the atmospheric and related sciences.

The panelists noted that, just last week, Hurricane Dorian forced the Air Force and Navy to spend millions of dollars to relocate helicopters and ships from coastal bases in Florida and Georgia and to dispatch the Navy fleet in Norfolk out to sea. Other military bases have faced more severe impacts, including Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida, which took a direct hit from Hurricane Michael last year and faces $3 billion in rebuilding costs.

"Our military assets are increasingly at risk from weather and climate disasters," said UCAR President Antonio Busalacchi, who was one of the panelists. "It is imperative that we better understand the environment around them."

David Easterling, director of the National Climate Assessment Technical Support Unit at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Climatic Data Center, provided an overview of climate changes in the United States and around the world. These included sea level rise and increases in heavy precipitation, which pose challenges to U.S. military bases from Nebraska to the Marshall Islands.

"Extensive, independent observations confirm the reality of a changing climate," Easterling said. "These changes are already impacting military installations and operations."

Sherri Goodman, a senior fellow at the Wilson Center and advisory board member for the Center for Climate and Security, said military leaders are studying long-term weather threats in the wake of such events as Hurricane Florence causing an estimated $3.6 billion in damage to Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune. She noted that military bases across the nation are facing multiple threats from flooding, extreme temperatures, wind, drought, and wildfire, and that service members must train for increasingly harsh weather conditions overseas.

"Climate is a threat multiplier that can strain the ability of U.S. forces," said Goodman, who had served as First Deputy Undersecretary of Defense (Environmental Security). "The Pentagon needs a detailed understanding of climate variability to determine how to best safeguard our military operations and support our troops."

Vice Admiral Dennis McGinn, a senior advisory board member for the Center for Climate and Security, highlighted the efforts by military leaders to adapt military operations to new conditions created by the changing climate.

"In the face of climate change and its growing impact on national security, creating resilience for our installations globally and for our troops is essential," said McGinn, who previously served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Energy, Installations, and Environment. "You manage what you measure. In order to manage climate change risk, we need to measure it with objective science and technology." 

The panelists emphasized the need for more weather and climate research to help the armed services better prepare for the risks ahead.

"We must protect our national security assets in both the near and long term and leverage our understanding of the Earth system so that U.S. troops have the environmental intelligence to keep our nation safe," Busalacchi said.

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