Warming puts heat on U.S. military ops

TEXAS A&M (US) — Changing global climate due to ongoing warming will present national and homeland security challenges requiring the U.S. military to adopt new ways of doing business worldwide.

A new report, issued by the National Research Council, 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.

“We were given a broad mandate to look at how climate change could affect naval forces,” says Mahlon “Chuck” Kennicutt II, professor of oceanography at Texas A&M University.

Kennicutt was a member of the committee that heard testimony from military, private sector, and scientific experts examining climate change’s global impacts and how they might affect U.S. Naval forces’ (including the Navy, Marine Corps and the Coast Guard) operations and capabilities.

“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 United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was used to determine the 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 says.

“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.”

If the polar icecaps in Greenland and Antarctica continue to melt, sea levels around the world will dramatically rise, potentially having 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,” Kennicutt says.

In the Arctic, the Northwest Passage could become seasonally ice-free, allowing for routine transiting of ocean going vessels across the Arctic Ocean, reducing 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. The Arctic is seen by many as the epicenter for conflicts related to the treaty because the Arctic Ocean is ringed by eight nations.

Conflict over new national boundaries in the Arctic has already strained U.S. 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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