Global Warming Could Severely Impact U.S. Military Operations

Released: 3/10/2011 5:10 PM EST
Source Newsroom: Texas A&M University
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Newswise — COLLEGE STATION, March 10, 2011 – Changing global climate due to on-going and projected warming have great potential to impact U.S. naval forces worldwide, according to a panel report issued today that includes a Texas A&M University researcher.

A warming climate presents national and homeland security challenges that will require the U.S. military to adopt a new way of doing business according to the report, National Security Implications of Climate Change for U.S. Naval Forces. The report, issued by the National Research Council and requested by the Chief of Naval Operations, paints an ominous picture of disputes over national boundaries and exclusive economic zones, strains on naval capabilities due to increasing disaster assistance demands, vulnerabilities of naval coastal facilities to sea level rise, greater demands on America’s international maritime partnerships, and a shortfall in naval capabilities and personnel trained to operate in the Arctic, says Mahlon “Chuck” Kennicutt II, professor of oceanography who was a member of the committee that authored the report.

The committee included retired military leaders, policy experts from private sector “think tanks” and university researchers and scientists. The committee, which met nine times over more than 12 months, heard testimony from a large number of military, private sector and scientific experts. It was asked to examine climate change impacts on our world and how these might affect U.S. Naval forces’ (including the Navy, Marine Corps and the Coast Guard) operations and capabilities.)

“We were given a broad mandate to look at how climate change could affect naval forces.” Kennicutt says. “The U.S. military needs to know what the world will look like 20-30 years from now if it is to make the preparations today to cope with tomorrow’s realities.”

The report describes a range of realistic scenarios about what could happen if climate change continues to unfold as most scientists believe it will over the next few decades. Kennicutt says the committee took the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) most likely future scenarios as a basis for its deliberations.

“It is an eye-opening report and presents a rather foreboding series of possible outcomes as our planet warms and reacts to past and continued greenhouse gas emissions.” Kennicutt said.

“The report brings to the attention of U.S. naval leadership areas that need attention in future planning and that will prepare the Navy for a warmer world.”

Kennicutt points out that if the polar icecaps in Greenland and Antarctica continue to melt, sea levels around the world will dramatically rise. Rising sea levels could have wide ranging detrimental impacts on naval facilities now and in the future, the report says.

“Arctic sea ice is melting much faster than predicted just a few years ago, so much so that there could be a summer, ice-free Arctic Ocean in a matter of years,” he explains.

In the Arctic, the Northwest Passage could become seasonally ice-free, allowing for routine transiting of ocean going vessels across the Arctic Ocean. This would reduce shipping time by as much as one-third from Europe to Asia alone.

“How this affects homeland security and what it means for terrorists or contraband smugglers that have ill will toward the U.S. is largely unknown,” Kennicutt adds.

“It would open large areas of the Arctic Ocean that were previously inaccessible to fishing, tourism, oil and gas exploration and possible environmental disasters. Studies suggest that as much as 30 percent of the world’s remaining oil and gas reserves are above the Arctic Circle, so it seems inevitable that exploration, exploitation and transport of oil and gas in the region will increase.”

The United Nations “Law of the Sea” Treaty allows countries to expand their seaward national boundaries, creating friction between Arctic nations, he points out. The Arctic is seen by many as the epicenter for conflicts related to the “Law of Sea” as the Arctic Ocean is ringed by eight nations.

He adds that conflict over new national boundaries in the Arctic has already strained our relations with Canada, since much of Canada’s territory is in the Arctic and their claims overlap with U.S. claims. The U.S. considers the Northwest Passage international waters, whereas Canada sees them as within its national boundaries.

“How this will affect U.S. national and homeland security is open to debate, but it is clear that an ice-free summer Arctic will dramatically change the politics and military strategies of the north for the foreseeable future,” Kennicutt says.

The committee also looked at how droughts and other weather disasters play a role in the military’s human assistance/disaster relief activities, such as the role the military played in recent tsunami and earthquake incidents (though not climate related). In recent years, there has been a growing demand on the U.S. military to serve a lead role in disaster relief.

“Especially dire are predicted impacts of famines and other natural disasters on Africa and the movement of refugees into Europe,” he explains. “Predictions suggest that over the next few decades droughts will be more severe, and so will storms such as hurricanes and typhoons, and this could put a severe strain on the military as it tries to respond to increasingly frequent natural disasters worldwide.

“How the U.S. military responds to a changing world will be critical to how prepared we are as a nation for a future that might look quite different than today,” he notes. “The report looks at some rather dire situations that could become a reality in just a few short years, and will the U.S. naval forces be ready to respond?”

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