U.S. National Research Council: Climate Change Impacts “Call for Action by U.S. Naval Leadership”


Arctic climate change challenge for U.S. Navy (Image source: U.S. Navy)

The U.S. National Research Council warned in a new report released March 10, National Security Implications of Climate Change for U.S. Naval Forces, that “even the most moderate predicted trends in climate change will present new national security challenges for the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard.” The seriousness of the climate change preparedness discourse in this report, commisioned by the U.S. Department of the Navy, and the seriousness with which it treats scientific intelligence and the assessments by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, contrasts with the rampant denialism we have been witnessing in Congress and the right-wing blogosphere.

Regardless of one’s views on U.S. national security policy issues, this report from the leading U.S. scientific advisory body to the U.S. government raises key issues in the science-policy nexus, most particularly with regard to the potential impacts of climate change in the Arctic region.

The following is re-posted with the permission of the author from the World Wildlife Fund’s Climate Blog.

U.S. National Research Council: Climate Change Impacts “Call for Action by U.S. Naval Leadership”

Published by Nick Sundt on Friday, March 11, 2011

In National Security Implications of Climate Change for U.S. Naval Forces, the U.S. National Research Council (NRC) warned yesterday (10 March 2011) that “even the most moderate predicted trends in climate change will present new national security challenges for the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard.” Frank L. Bowman, a retired U.S. navy admiral and co-chair of the NRC committee that wrote the report said: “Naval forces need to monitor more closely and start preparing now for projected challenges climate change will present in the future.”  The NRC is the main operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering.  

The study, sponsored by the U.S. Department of the Navy, covered a wide range of climate change implications for naval operations around the world, but it highlighted the implications of Arctic warming.  “Of all the theaters of naval operations that the committee considered could be impacted by climate change, the Arctic was found to have the most immediate challenges,” the report says. We provide below excerpts from the report, outlining the panel’s findings and recommendations in six areas for “U.S. Naval Leadership Action.”

Action Area 1: Support ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

FINDING: The committee has studied the implications of the failure of the United States to ratify the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) from the standpoint of potential impacts on national security in the context of a changing climate. As climate change affords increased access to the Arctic, it is envisioned that there will be new opportunities for natural resource exploration and recovery, as well as increased ship traffic of all kinds, and with that a need for broadened naval partnership and cooperation, and a framework for settling potential disputes and conflicts. By remaining outside the Convention, the United States makes it more difficult for U.S. naval forces to have maximum operating flexibility in the Arctic and complicates negotiations with maritime partners for coordinated search and rescue operations in the region. (Chapter 1)

RECOMMENDATION: The ability of U.S. naval forces to carry out their missions would be assisted if the United States were to ratify UNCLOS. Therefore, the committee recommends that the Chief of Naval Operations, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, and the Commandant of the Coast Guard continue to put forward the naval forces’ view of the potential value and operational impact of UNCLOS ratification on U.S. naval operations, especially in the Arctic region. (Chapter 1)  

Action Area 2: Prepare for increased strain on capabilities due to greater humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HA/DR)-related missions, as well as the opening of new international and territorial waters in the Arctic.  

FINDING: The unique capability provided by the U.S. Navy hospital ships will become even more important in supporting potential humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HA/DR)-related missions that will likely occur as a result of crises created by climate change. The Navy needs to maintain this capability beyond the life of its current two-ship hospital fleet. (Chapter 2)

RECOMMENDATION: The Program Executive Office for Ships (PEO-Ships), the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA), and the Military Sealift Command (MSC) should analyze alternatives to retain the medical capability of the current hospital ships into the future. The analysis should address construction of new military or commercial platforms like the Mobile Landing Platform (MLP) that will join the Maritime Prepositioning Force (MPF); modification to current surface platforms or amphibious “big-decks”; or construction of next-generation Navy fleet hospitals to meet the requirements. In this context, PEO-Ships, NAVSEA, and MSC should also explore the feasibility of leasing commercial ships and crews to meet the requirements, but in doing  guaranteed availability on very short notice are included. (Chapter 2)

FINDING: Global climate change projections from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) suggest damaging impacts in developing and developed nations that may be destabilizing in many parts of the world. These projections would affect U.S. national security and stress naval resources. In particular, naval forces will likely be required to carry out more frequent humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HA/DR)-related missions. At the same time, U.S. naval forces would be expected to execute their ongoing national security military missions and to position themselves for supporting missions in destabilized regions around the globe. It is also expected that the demand for U.S. Naval Construction Force and Marine Expeditionary Unit capabilities will increase in proportion to the operational tempo of U.S-sponsored international HA/DR missions. (Chapter 2)

RECOMMENDATION: In the near term, the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) should not specifically fund new force-structure capabilities to deal with the effects of projected climate change; however, the CNO should begin to hedge against climate change impacts through planning for modifications of the existing force structure as climate change requirements become clearer. The U.S. naval forces (the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard) should begin to consider potential specific force-structure capabilities and training standards for conducting missions arising from, or affected by, climate change, particularly HA/DR-related missions. (Chapter 2)

USCGC Healy, a Coast Guard icebreaker designed to support scientific research, in the Arctic Ocean. Credit: Henry Dick Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution / NSF


FINDING: The nation has very limited icebreaker capability, which could limit the U.S. ability to train, operate, and engage in the Arctic. Furthermore, as noted in a 2007 National Research Council report, “both operations and maintenance of [the] polar icebreaker fleet have been underfunded for many years, and the capabilities of the nation’s icebreaking fleet have diminished substantially” and, among other things, “the U.S. Coast Guard [USCG] should be provided sufficient operations and maintenance budget[s] to support an increased, regular, and influential presence in the Arctic.” Moreover, U.S. national icebreaker assets are old, obsolete, and under the control of another agency that does not have a national security operational mandate. The present committee believes that future USCG missions in the Arctic will require autonomy and command of their vessels. (Chapter 2)

RECOMMENDATION: In order to support the U.S. naval forces’ missions in the Arctic, the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) needs icebreaker capabilities under its operational control. While there are other national requirements for such ships, action should be taken to provide these operational capabilities to the USCG. Therefore, the Chief of Naval Operations should support the initiatives of the Commandant of the Coast Guard to define future USCG icebreaker needs. As such, future U.S. national icebreaker assets should be defined as part of a holistic force structure that also accommodates ongoing National Science Foundation-sponsored polar research needs. (Chapter 2)

FINDING: The current situation of the three combatant commanders—Commander, U.S. European Command; Commander, U.S. Northern Command; and Commander, U.S. Pacific Command—having overlapping areas of responsibility for the Arctic was perhaps workable when the Arctic was less important than it is rapidly becoming. This division of responsibility in the Arctic is inconsistent with U.S. national interests and does not match the command structure of other U.S. agencies (such as the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of State) in this increasingly significant region of the world. (Chapter 2)

RECOMMENDATION: The Chief of Naval Operations should engage the Joint Chiefs of Staff in a review of combatant commanders’ responsibilities for the Arctic, with the  goal of ensuring the most effective command structure. Interagency considerations, including but not limited to the U.S. Department of State, should be included in these deliberations. (Chapter 2)

FINDING: In the post–Cold War era, the U.S. Navy has had a very limited surface ship presence in true northern latitude, cold-weather conditions. 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. (Chapter 2)

RECOMMENDATION: The Chief of Naval Operations, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, and the Commandant of the Coast Guard should establish a strong and consistently funded effort to increase Arctic operations and share lessons, including with allies. In the immediate term, the Navy should begin Arctic training and the Marine Corps should also reestablish a cold-weather training program. (Chapter 2)  

Action Area 3: Address naval coastal installation vulnerabilities due to anticipated sea-level rise and increased storm surges.   

FINDING: Peer-reviewed literature since the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) suggests that loss of ice from small ice bodies (e.g., mountain glaciers and small ice caps) may have been underestimated in the last IPCC report and that major changes in Greenland and Antarctic ice sheet dynamics can take place over relatively short timescales. Sea-level variations caused by shifts in wind,  rain, evaporation, and land-ice volume can cause far greater local changes in sea-level variations than the global mean rise that is projected from thermal expansion of the ocean and land-surface meltwater runoff. (Chapter 3)

RECOMMENDATION: Based on recent peer-reviewed scientific literature, the Department of the Navy should expect roughly 0.4 to 2 meters global average sea-level rise by 2100, with a most likely value of about 0.8 meter. Projections of local sea-level rise could be much larger and should be taken into account for naval planning purposes. However, U.S. naval leadership (e.g., the Oceanographer of the Navy) should be aware that this estimate is subject to change, and it should be reviewed routinely for any significant change. (Chapter 3)

FINDING: Neither regional nor global sea level is of primary interest in determining naval coastal installation vulnerability. Rather, it is the increased vulnerability associated with extreme events (storm surges) and their dependence on changes in regional sea level, tidal amplitudes, and the nature of extraordinary meteorological forces that are of greatest importance. (Chapter 3)

FINDING: U.S. Navy, Coast Guard, and Marine Corps coastal installations around the globe will become increasingly susceptible to projected climate change. Several assessments now under way on naval installation vulnerabilities appear to be focused primarily on static sea-level rise and coastal inundation only. According to these current assessments, some adaptive actions are indicated owing to already identified vulnerabilities at specific naval installations. The preliminary review of climate-changerelated base vulnerabilities across the DOD—currently under way as directed by the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review—does not include some important factors that affect coastal installation vulnerabilities, although it provides a baseline assessment across all branches of the armed services and serves as a starting point for more in-depth analysis and action. (Chapter 3)

RECOMMENDATION: The Commander, Naval Installations Command, and the Navy Director for Fleet Readiness and Logistics should work with their U.S. Coast Guard and Marine Corps counterparts—and in conjunction with the other armed services and the Office of the Secretary of Defense—to ensure that a coordinated analysis is undertaken to address naval-installation vulnerability to rising sea levels, higher storm surges, and other consequences of climate change. In performing this vulnerability analysis, naval facility managers should recognize that each and every naval facility has a unique configuration and requires ongoing oversight of the changing risks as the climate system shifts. For example, local storm surge impact in climate-induced extreme storm events is likely to represent a bigger vulnerability than sea-level rise alone. (Chapter 3)

RECOMMENDATION: For Program Objective Memorandum (POM)-14 planning purposes, the Chief of Naval Operations should prepare to invest in early-stage adaptation for targeted low-elevation naval installations identified in current  vulnerability assessments as being at “very high risk” from more intense storm surges, sea-level rise, and other climate change impacts. Other risks for naval installations as a result of projected climate change require further analysis and planning at this time, but no immediate direct additional substantial investment beyond current budget plans. (Chapter 3)  

Action Area 4: Address U.S., allied, and/or international maritime partnership demands based on climate change scenarios.

FINDING: All regions of the world will experience the effects of projected climate change. Some climate change effects, such as changes in storm patterns and drought, will have direct impacts in the United States. Should regional storms and droughts intensify over time they may well drive mass migrations to the United States from neighboring countries, including Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Projected climate change will also directly and indirectly affect most U.S. allies, including NATO countries, Australia, Japan, and all other major non-NATO allies, which in turn may request or require U.S. assistance. (Chapter 4)

RECOMMENDATION: Given that U.S. naval forces cannot be fully prepared for or respond to all plausible climate contingencies, the Chief of Naval Operations, working with the combatant commanders, the Commandant of the Coast Guard, and the Commandant of the Marine Corps, should develop or expand maritime partnerships with other nations. Projected climate change will affect all regions of the world, and so U.S. naval forces should seek to develop these partnerships with long-standing allies and nontraditional partners alike, including Russia, China, and nongovernmental organizations. In particular, developing climate change response capabilities within the NATO alliance could strengthen global climate change response capabilities and the alliance itself. (Chapter 4)

FINDING: Although the likelihood of conflict in the Arctic is low, it cannot be ruled out, and competition in the region is a given. However, cooperation in the region should not be considered a given, even with close allies. Although there are mechanisms for bilateral and multilateral cooperation in the area, including the Arctic Council, these relationships and mechanisms are largely untested for emerging conditions. Additionally, with the ratification of UNCLOS, U.S. naval forces will be better positioned to conduct future naval operations and protect national security interests, especially in the Arctic. (Chapter 4)

RECOMMENDATION: The Chief of Naval Operations, working with the combatant commanders, the Commandant of the Coast Guard, and the Commandant of the Marine Corps, should build maritime partnerships in the Arctic region and encourage the United States to continue to identify and adopt policies and relationships in the Arctic that will build cooperation for new circumstances and minimize the risks of confrontation. (For example, naval leaders should pursue bilateral and multilateral training and exercising of U.S. naval personnel with partner nation personnel in maritime security, search and rescue, and HA/DR, and continue strong support of the U.S. efforts in the Arctic Council.) There should be no assumption that the geostrategic situation will take care of  itself or that U.S. interests in the region are currently protected and promoted. (Chapter 4)   

Action Area 5: Address the potential impacts on the technical underpinnings that enable, in part, naval force capabilities, especially any impacts due to the necessity to operate in polar regions.  

FINDING: U.S. military navigation and communications systems have been optimized to support operations in non-polar regions. Likewise, data on terrain elevation and bathymetry to support military operations and nautical charting are of low resolution and sparse in the Arctic. Moreover, while accurate ice coverage charts are available to guide surface navigation, reliable real-time ice characterization and maps in emergent Arctic transit routes are not. The combined effect of degraded navigation, communications, and charting systems could impact safe operations and reduce the performance of military systems in the polar regions. (Chapter 5)  

RECOMMENDATION:The Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development, and Acquisition should increase research and development efforts at the Office of Naval Research and the Naval Research Laboratory to address the operational shortfalls of existing and planned navigation, communications, and charting systems, leveraging both local and global augmentation technologies. In conjunction with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Department of the Navy should increase priority for extending modern navigation, communications, and charting coverage to include the Arctic region. (Chapter 5)

FINDING: The United States had an Arctic research program during the Cold War that has essentially ceased. Moreover, there is no infrastructure to support antisubmarine warfare (ASW) in the Arctic. While there are no significant ASW activities now in the Arctic, U.S. naval forces need to be prepared to operate there safely. The United States’ diminished Arctic research program and capabilities from what existed during the Cold War—plus the need for even better performance from its ASW systems—put U.S. naval forces’ ability to operate as needed in the Arctic at risk if the United States does not keep pace with the capabilities of other Arctic nations, especially Russia with its extensive claims of Arctic sovereignty, as well as with non-Arctic nations, such as China. (Chapter 5)

RECOMMENDATION: Given that climate change may drive the U.S. naval forces to conduct antisubmarine warfare (ASW) operations in the Arctic, the Department of the Navy should increase its submarine Arctic presence for training purposes, extend its supporting ASW oceanographic data infrastructure to the Arctic Ocean, and begin to conduct multiplatform ASW training exercises in the Arctic. Specifically, this should include: 

  • Increased research for Arctic passive and active sonars;
  • Long-range planning to install facilities that support Arctic ASW, such as refurbishing and expanding the fixed array systems;
  • Planning for aircraft support from the new P8;
  • Development of high-latitude communications systems for relaying tactical and environmental data;
  • Identifying ports for emergencies; and
  • Incorporation of a more robust under-ice capability on Virginia-class submarines. (Chapter 5)  

Action Area 6: Support investments for additional research and development that have implications for future naval force operations and capabilities, and might not be met by other groups pursuing climate-related research.  

FINDING: Open access to previously classified Navy data and to other Department of Defense assets through the MEDEA Program have enabled advances in climate change research that have benefited the scientific community studying climate change. A clear example of this benefit is the analysis of submarine upward looking sonar, which shows that sea ice has been thinning in response to climate change. (Chapter 6)

RECOMMENDATION: The Chief of Naval Research, the Oceanographer of the Navy, and the Commander, Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command, should consider findings by the MEDEA Program (and take lessons from MEDEA actions within the intelligence community) to develop and support a Navy philosophy for providing access to previously classified information that can be used by the climate research community. Such actions would enhance the potential of these researchers to help the Navy better prepare for its mission in a future with a warmer climate. (Chapter 6)

FINDING: The Navy has billions of dollars in assets exposed to the threats of climate change, and it must make strategic decisions in the face of considerable uncertainty about the pace, magnitude, and regional manifestations of climate change. Yet Navy research at present has no capability for modeling the coupled ocean-atmosphere-land-cryosphere system and how it will respond to greenhouse gas forcing. The Navy also has no programs in seasonal-to-decadal timescale climate forecasting to help guide longrange strategic planning for operations, platforms, and facilities; it relies almost entirely on civilian agencies and international assessments to inform its policies and practices related to climate change. (Chapter 6)

RECOMMENDATION: The Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development, and Acquisition (ASN RDA) should examine the U.S. Navy’s overall research and development capabilities vis-à-vis climate studies, especially with respect to coupled models and climate forecasting on seasonal-to-decadal timescales. The ASN RDA should give special emphasis to regional aspects of sea-level rise, and sea-ice concentration and extent, because of their relevance to coastal infrastructure and operational needs. The Department of the Navy should also become actively engaged in the development of an Arctic Observing System, specifically with respect to development and deployment of in situ and remote sensing systems (i.e., gliders, buoys, and satellites) as well as icebreakers in support of research. (Chapter 6)

Online Resources

National Security Implications of Climate Change for U.S. Naval Forces.  By National Research Council, 2011.  See also press release (dated 10 March 2011), U.S. Naval Forces Need to Prepare for Effects of Climate Change; and a summary document [PDF].

WWF Climate Change Blog:

Earlier CSW posts:

AMS Climate Briefing Series takes on national security implications of climate change

Republican deficit demagogue threatens to de-fund CIA climate monitoring and analysis

The national security frame: a path forward for climate change communication?

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2 Responses to U.S. National Research Council: Climate Change Impacts “Call for Action by U.S. Naval Leadership”

  1. Ben S says:

    Oh — the Navy believes in Global Warming–where are all the deniers now?

    Yea, things are going to be ALOT different when the average global temperature is 3 degrees greater in 100 years.

  2. Pingback: Climate Capsule: Big Oil Wants to Skimp on Safety : Wildlife Promise

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