U.S. naval forces should prepare for effects of climate change in Arctic, says NRC report

WASHINGTON — In response to the measured and projected effects of climate change, U.S. naval forces should begin now to strengthen capabilities in the Arctic, prepare for more frequent humanitarian missions, and analyze potential vulnerabilities of seaside bases and facilities, says a new report by the National Research Council (NRC). Although the ultimate consequences of future climate change remain uncertain, many effects such as melting sea ice in the Arctic and rising sea levels are already under way and require U.S. naval monitoring and action.

Frank L. Bowman, a retired U.S. navy admiral, co-chaired of the committee that wrote the report:

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. Naval forces need to monitor more closely and start preparing now for projected challenges climate change will present in the future.

Summer sea ice in the Arctic is declining at an estimated rate of 10 percent per decade or more, and Arctic Ocean sea lanes could be open as early as the summer of 2030. U.S. security challenges are growing as shipping, oil and gas exploration, and other activities increase in the region, the report says. To protect U.S. interests, U.S. naval forces need to fund a strong, consistent effort to increase Arctic operations and cold weather training programs.

U.S. naval leaders should continue to stress to Congress the value and operational benefits of ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the report says. U.S. naval forces should also work with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and allies to strengthen international capabilities to respond to predicted climate change challenges in the Arctic and worldwide.

In addition, for Arctic national security operations, the U.S. Coast Guard should have operational control of the nation’s three icebreakers, rather than the National Science Foundation. The report reiterates a previous Research Council report that says the icebreakers – which should provide access to many sites throughout the year – are old, obsolete, and underfunded. The Coast Guard should have the authority to determine future icebreaker requirements.

Naval forces will also need to meet growing demands for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief efforts in response to a range of predicted crises created by climate change, including floods, droughts, intense storms, and geopolitical unrest. Of particular concern is the future of U.S. Navy hospital ships to provide evacuation services and trauma care. The Navy and Marine Corps should retain the medical capability of the current two-ship hospital fleet at a minimum and also consider other options such as contracting with private ships to meet growing demands. In the near term, the report says, the Navy need not specifically fund new capabilities to deal with projected climate change but instead modify existing structures and forces as demands become more clear.

Antonio J. Busalacchi was committee co-chair. He is director of the Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center at the University of Maryland, College Park. He said:

Although the future degree and magnitude of climate change on regional scales is uncertain, it’s clear that the potential for environmental disasters is on the rise due to the changing nature of the hydrologic cycle and sea level. Naval forces must be prepared to provide more aid and disaster relief in the decades ahead.

The report notes that rising sea levels accompanied by stronger, more frequent storm surges could leave U.S. naval installations vulnerable. An estimated $100 billion of Navy installations would be at risk from sea-level rise of 1 meter or more. The Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard should work together to ensure that a coordinated analysis addresses vulnerabilities of shore-based facilities to the consequences of climate change.

The study was sponsored by the U.S. Department of the Navy.

Download the full text of the report.

Via the National Academies.

March 10, 2011

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