NRC report: US Navy, Marines and Coast Guard need to begin now to prepare for effects of climate change in the Arctic
|The Arctic region, in this report, is defined as the area north of the Arctic Circle (highlighted on this map in red). Click to enlarge.|
In response to the measured and projected effects of climate change, US naval forces—i.e., the US Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard—should begin now to strengthen operational 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.
In response to the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), the National Research Council appointed a committee operating under the auspices of the Naval Studies Board to study the national security implications of climate change for US naval forces. The committee found that even the most moderate current trends in climate, if continued, will present new national security challenges. Although the timing, degree, and consequence of future climate change impacts remain uncertain, many changes are already under way in regions around the world, such as in the Arctic, and call for action by US naval leadership in response, the report found.
The Terms of Reference (TOR) directed the study to:
Examine the potential impact on US future naval operations and capabilities as a result of climate change.
Assess the robustness of the Department of Defense’s infrastructure for supporting US future naval operations and capabilities in the context of potential climate change impacts.
Determine the potential impact climate change will have on allied force operations and capabilities.
Examine the potential impact on US future naval antisubmarine warfare operations and capabilities in the world’s oceans as a result of climate change; specifically, the technical underpinnings for projecting US undersea dominance in light of the changing physical properties of the oceans.
The report organized its findings around six discussion areas:
Disputes of boundaries and exclusive economic zones as a result of new maritime transits and competition of new resources;
Strains on naval capabilities, given continuing first responder missions, and the opening of new international and territorial waters;
Vulnerabilities to naval coastal installations due to sea-level rise and increased storm surges;
Demands for establishing greater US, allied, and/or international maritime partnerships;
Impacts on the technical underpinnings that enable, in part, naval force capabilities, particularly those that operate and train in the Arctic; and
Investments for additional research and development that have implications for future naval operations and capabilities and might not be met by other groups pursuing climate-related research.
Summer sea ice in the Arctic is declining at an estimated rate of 10% per decade or more, and Arctic Ocean sea lanes could be open as early as the summer of 2030. US security challenges are growing as shipping, oil and gas exploration, and other activities increase in the region, the report says. To protect US interests, US naval forces need to fund a strong, consistent effort to increase Arctic operations and cold weather training programs.
US 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 (UNCLOS), the report says. US 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.
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, US naval forces will be better positioned to conduct future naval operations and protect national security interests, especially in the Arctic.
The report recommends that the leadership of US naval forces build maritime partnerships in the Arctic region and encourages 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 US naval personnel with partner nation personnel in maritime security, search and rescue, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HA/DR), and continue strong support of the US efforts in the Arctic Council.)
There should be no assumption that the geostrategic situation will take care of itself or that US interests in the region are currently protected and promoted.
In addition, for Arctic national security operations, the US 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 HA/DR 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 US 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.
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.—Antonio J. Busalacchi, committee co-chair and director of the Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center at the University of Maryland, College Park
The report notes that rising sea levels accompanied by stronger, more frequent storm surges could leave US 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 report also discusses climate-change-related technical issues impacting naval operations.
...there is a high likelihood that a warming climate will increase the operational tempo in polar regions; consequently, the demands on navigation systems, communication systems, and nautical charts in polar regions will intensify. The initial increase in tempo will be driven by scientific and exploratory missions, especially so in the Arctic. As the degree of precision required by military combat operations can be more extreme than that required by peacetime operations, if tensions in the Arctic increase, the technical challenges will be multiplied.
Some of the technical issues include:
- naval navigation systems infrastructure;
- communication systems performance in polar regions;
- ice characterization in operational safety in Arctic navigation;
- climate-change-related antisubmarine warfare (ASW) impacts; and
- submarine operations.
The study was sponsored by the US Department of the Navy. The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council make up the National Academies.
National Security Implications of Climate Change for US Naval Forces (Committee on National Security Implications of Climate Change for US Naval Forces; National Research Council, 2011)