Navy Official Discusses Climate Change Investment Strategy
By Bob Freeman
Office of the Oceanographer of the Navy
WASHINGTON, June 21, 2010 A number of recent strategic Defense Department documents have recognized that the changing climate may affect national security and military operations later in the century.
This is particularly true for the globally deployed U.S. Navy, and investments to address climate challenges may need to be made, the service’s oceanographer said in a June 18 “DoD Live” bloggers roundtable.
“We're going to have to fold these challenges into a tight fiscal budget,” acknowledged Navy Rear Adm. David W. Titley, who also serves as director of the Navy's Task Force Climate Change. He explained that it is important not only to know what investments are right to meet future requirements, but also to know when to make them.
“We want to basically pace the threat,” Titley said. “We don't want to get into a tail chase over climate change, but at the same time, … we do not want to spend ahead of need, spending for things that may not be required for years or decades later.”
Titley explained that to define the scope of needed investments the Navy will conduct capabilities-based assessments, which he described as foundational studies to determine the requirements for such things as force structure, infrastructure, command and control and communications. “We're doing one of these capabilities-based assessments for climate change in general, and another one focused specifically on the Arctic,” he said.
Titley said the assessments were timed to coincide with the Navy's program objective memorandum for fiscal 2014. POMs are annual events in which critical decisions on the budget and investment spending are made. Titley said he believes the 2014 budget is where the first climate-change investments may potentially be made.
“One of the investments we're really going to have to think about in the next several decades is the impact of sea level rise on the Navy's infrastructure,” Titley said. “That includes our ports and piers in the continental United States, but we also need to think about bases we use in conjunction with our partners and allies overseas.”
As an example, Titley mentioned Diego Garcia, a small, low-lying island in the Indian Ocean that hosts a strategic airfield.
“The observations have shown us that through the 20th century, sea level rose by an average of two millimeters per year,” Titley said. “So that means over the course of the century, we had about 20 centimeters, or roughly eight inches, of sea level rise. The sea level rise we've seen in the first 10 years of the new century is already 50 percent greater than the average sea level rise in the 20th century.”
Titley explained that as the oceans get warmer, they expand and take up more space, causing the sea level to rise. In addition, the land-based ice that already is melting -- including mountain glaciers, the Greenland ice field, and even the western Antarctic ice sheet -- will add volume to the ocean. He acknowledged considerable uncertainty over the time line and extent of sea level rise, but he noted that leading climate scientists believe sea levels could rise as much as six feet by the end of the century.
“How probable is this?” Titley asked. “I'm not really sure right now, but I am sure there are significant consequences. We need to make sure, as time goes by, that we understand it, we have a plan, and we know what it will cost us to execute that plan.
“That's really one of the foundational elements the task force is going to pursue,” he added.
In response to a question on specific infrastructure upgrades, Titley noted that there is no single answer, and said scientists and engineers will need to work together with local communities, taking into account the specifics of every critical location, to determine what types of solutions will be needed.
“That is what our capabilities-based assessments will be tasked to figure out,” he said.
When asked whether naval bases were prepared for stronger and more intense hurricanes, Titley said that the impact a warming climate may have on tropical storm development is controversial and subject to much research. He explained that ocean warming is only one component of hurricane formation, and that other factors such as upper level wind shear may not support increased frequency and intensity.
“What I can tell you,” he said, “is that our regional commanders make sure their bases are prepared for severe hurricanes every year.”
Titley said it’s essential to improve predictive capabilities on a variety of time lines to provide reliable forecasts to decision makers. These predictions need to include weather and ocean forecasts in the near term, as well as climatological forecasts extending decades out, he added.
“In the past, many federal agencies tended to produce their own predictive models,” Titley said. He noted that he is engaging the leadership of other agencies to create partnerships that will ensure that the best minds in the nation are working collectively on solutions. These joint climate models could serve both military and civilian purposes, he said, recognizing that details regarding classification and security would need to be worked out.
“I believe that the time is right, and the leadership in many agencies is right, to work this at a national level,” he said, “to make sure the taxpayer money we put into these predictions give the absolute best return on our collective investment. We owe this to the American people.”
Titley said international partnerships also are important to dealing effectively with potential climate-change challenges, particularly in the Arctic. He mentioned that the Canadian navy had invited the United States to participate this year in its annual Operation Nanook polar exercise. U.S. participants will include a destroyer, a maritime patrol aircraft, and specialized ice diving units.
“This is a tremendous opportunity for several hundred of our sailors and officers to experience operating ships and aircraft well north of the Arctic Circle,” Titley said.
There is also a proposal to share lessons learned with the Danish navy, which has significant experience operating in the Arctic waters around its territory Greenland. In addition, Titley said, the Naval Research Laboratory is working with the Russian navy in the Kara Sea this summer, and there are current discussions with the International Hydrographic Organization to determine how to best work with regional partners in cooperative ocean-surveying operations.
“This is not meant to be all inclusive,” Titley said, “but it is an indication of progress in just the last couple of months towards opportunities to work with our international partners.”
Titley noted some other examples of progress in considering the strategic impact of climate change.
“Recently, the chief of naval operations signed out the Navy's Arctic strategic objectives,” he said, “and this gives everybody in the Navy a common frame of reference to understand what we are trying to achieve.”
He added that the Navy wants to ensure a “safe, stable, and secure Arctic.”
Titley said the main goal of Task Force Climate Change is to ensure the Navy is not taken by strategic surprise, and he expressed satisfaction that climate change is being considered in strategic war games and limited objective experiments. He described these as “thinking exercises” that examine various strategic scenarios to determine how to handle them, to evaluate whether the assets are available to handle them, and to identify shortfalls.
“Nobody knows what the future will entail,” Titley said, “but if you run a range of scenarios, and you see that there are common capabilities and capacities that you would need to answer those scenarios, then you can really inform a future budget debate.”