Cyber Security and Emerging Threats

Climate Change Presents Challenges to American Coastal Installations

As the world’s climate changes, the U.S military is presented with issues that challenge the operability of their defense installations both at home and abroad.

In 2014, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) examined a sample of 15 bases in diverse climates from various branches of the military to gauge the effects of climate change on their installations. It found that 12 had experienced or expect to experience climate-change-related issues. The study noted that military installations should be concerned with rising temperatures; changes in precipitation patterns; increasing storm frequency and intensity (both coastal and inland); rising sea levels and associated storm surges; and changes in ocean temperature, circulation, salinity, and acidity.

Facing the most severe challenges are US coastal installations.

According to the Department of Defense’s Environmental Research Program, as glaciers and polar ice sheets melt into the oceans, sea levels could rise by as much as two meters by the year 2100. As a result, sites along the coasts could experience increased storm damage, more rapid coastal erosion, the possibility for total loss of protective natural barriers, saltwater intrusion into aquifers and surface waters, rising water tables, and changes in the tidal prism.

A 2011 National Research Council report disclosed that there were at least 128 U.S. military sites at risk from rising sea levels. Of these 128, 56 are naval facilities with a replacement value of over US $100 billion.

One of the Department of Defense’s most important sites, Hampton Roads, Virginia, has infrastructure that currently sits at or only a few meters above sea level, and is very susceptible to storm surges and gradual sea level rises. “This is an area that has been recognized second only to New Orleans to be impacted by rising seas,” Norfolk District Commander Col Jason Kelly said recently. The Hampton Roads area currently plays host to 20% of the United States Navy fleet and houses 29 military sites including Naval Station Norfolk (the largest naval complex in the world). It includes private defense industry partners such as Huntington Ingalls Shipyard, which builds half of US submarines and all its aircraft carriers.

A 2013 report prepared by the U.S. Army Engineer Research & Development Center predicted that in the event of a “100-year storm,” the type that only occurs once a century, 60-80% of the base and surrounding town could be flooded. In the meantime, when a rainstorm passes through or a very high tide occurs, some of the base’s roads can become submerged and the entry gates can become impassable.

Occupying the majority of the northwest sector of the Florida panhandle, Eglin Air Force Base, the largest Air Force base in the world, is becoming increasingly vulnerable to storm surges, changing precipitation patterns, saltwater intrusion, and rising sea levels. The site plays host to the pivotal Air Armament Center, which is responsible for the development, acquisition, testing, deployment and sustainment of all air-delivered weapons. In recent years, US $112 million was spent on repairs to a barrier island that protects the vital base from storm surges after three hurricanes in 10 years decimated the island.

In Alaska, some communications and early-warning sites along the coast have faced increasing erosion caused by rising sea levels. One site in particular has lost some 12 metres of shoreline to heavy erosion patterns.

According to the Department of Defense’s latest Quadrennial Defense Review, “the impacts of climate change may undermine the capacity of our domestic installations to support training activities.” This is projected to be the case at the Dare County Bombing range in North Carolina. The site, which consists of 46,000 acres of marshland, forest, and open space, is used for air-to-surface target exercises by the Air Force and Navy, and is considered an integral training ground. According to a Department of Defense study, major interruptions to operations caused by sea level rise will begin in certain areas of the range as early as 2050.

Just as the US military footprint extends beyond its shores, so, too, do its challenges. Strategic American installations on small islands and atolls such as Naval Base Guam on the island of Guam, or Camp Justice on the island of Diego Garcia, sit at or just slightly above sea level and will be affected considerably by global sea level rise as well as increased storm intensity.

While some have called for the military to close or relocate their at-risk installations, Admiral Gunn (Retired) of the CNA Military Advisory Board notes that, “we are bedded down where we are bedded down.” Due to the complex political process involved in closing bases and the immense cost of building new installations, Gunn expects there will be little change made to the military’s domestic footprint.

While these challenges appear insurmountable, one can take comfort in knowing that the U.S. military has recognized the enormity of the situation and is resolute in its desire to identify and address the issues climate change presents to its coastal infrastructure. In recent years, the U.S. has made this a priority within key military policies. The Department of Defense’s Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap states that, “adapting to changing climate conditions is critical to the ability of the Department to address current and future threats, and sustain its mission.” The document also reveals that the Department is currently undertaking a program for conducting consistent vulnerability assessments of military installations, starting with coastal and tidal installations, and will draw up and implement multi-level strategies to mitigate and adapt to the disparate challenges climate change poses to their infrastructure.

Effective January 14, 2016, Department of Defense Directive 4715.21 ‘Climate Change Adaptation and Resilience’ specifies the military must be able to “adapt current and future operations to address the impacts of climate change in order to maintain an effective and efficient U.S. military.”

The solutions for mitigating and adapting to the challenges facing coastal installations will not be easy or cheap. The U.S. military appears to recognize the urgency of the situation and has made strides towards implementing programs and projects that seek to address the challenges. However, after November’s Presidential election, the military’s focus on climate resilience may falter due to a new government’s opinion on climate change, increased budgetary restrictions, or both.


Photo courtesy of Michael Lavender (U.S. Navy).

Jeremy Paquin
Jeremy Paquin is currently under the employ of the Department of National Defence where he works as a Project Support Officer on domestic infrastructure initiatives. Jeremy holds a Bachelor of Arts in Geography with a Minor in Communications from Carleton University. Since graduating in 2014 he has re-enrolled in Political Science classes to strengthen policy analysis skills and hopes to begin studying law shortly. Jeremy would like to assist organizations with strategy and policy advice, while enjoying a career in Government Relations. He enjoys reading non-fiction, following Canadian politics, and cycling.