Based on its mission and positioning, the United States Navy is acutely affected by global climate change. In addition to the operational and infrastructure challenges, the Navy is also struggling to work through the current political framework to position itself for the future.
Challenges Presented by Climate Change
The Navy defines the major challenges that result from global climate change on its operations are the changing arctic landscape and potential sea level rise.1
Because of global climate change, the arctic sea and ice shelf are changing faster than any other location. Because of the existing ice mass, current Naval operation in the arctic region is primarily limited to nuclear submarines. However, Navy projections of the size of the summer ice mass (when the ice mass is the smallest) indicate that both the transpolar sea route and the northwest passage (both currently non-navigable year-round) could be navigable by the summer of 2020. In addition, the existing arctic sea routes (the Bering Strait and the Northern Sea Route) will become navigable for a longer portion of the year. The implications of this new access to the arctic sea are unknown at this point, but the Navy needs to be ready for increased cargo shipments as well as potentially increased presence by other countries looking to stake a claim to abundant arctic resources.2
As the arctic ice mass continues to melt, the Navy expects sea levels to continue to rise which puts a considerable strain on Navy installations because they are primarily located in coastal areas. For example, Norfolk Virginia (home to the world’s largest naval base) is in a low-lying area that is deemed one of the city’s most vulnerable to damage by rising sea levels.3
Current Course of Action
The Navy has recognized that a “Preponderance of global observational evidence shows the Arctic Ocean is losing sea ice, global temperatures are warming, sea level is rising, large landfast ice sheets (Greenland and Antarctic) are losing ice mass, and precipitation patterns are changing” and “The Navy acknowledges that climate change is a national security challenge with strategic implications for the Navy.” To assess, predict and adapt to the effects of global climate change, in 2009, the highest levels of the Navy started by chartering a Task Force Climate Change which is responsible for setting the Navy’s strategy, implementing that strategy, and measuring the progress of this work. This task force reports directly to the Chief of Naval Operations and the Secretary of Defense on the readiness of the Navy to combat the effects of global climate change. Specific items that the task force is working on to address the issues discussed above include: evaluating the strategic implications of the Arctic ice melt, assessing current infrastructure for susceptibility to rising sea levels, and implementing rules and regulations for new infrastructure projects to be ready for rising sea levels.4
Implementation Issues and Specific Recommendations
One key issue that the Navy struggles to overcome when adjusting to the effects of global climate change is the fact that the Navy’s budget and strategy are approved by Congress which has not entirely bought into the idea of climate change or that it is a big enough concern.5 Therefore, the Navy struggles to receive appropriate resources and approval to ensure that the Navy will be ready for the changing global landscape.
The Navy needs to work through the Department of Defense and the White House to push the legislative bodies to provide appropriate resources required to continue to protect national security and international maritime law.
While it is difficult to get a picture of the strategic decisions being made to prepare for the changing Arctic Ocean, the Navy needs to continue to work to assess the status of climate change and project the impact. In addition, the Navy is ensuring that rising sea levels are considered when designing new infrastructure projects4, however, they must increase the pace with which they are improving existing infrastructure focusing on the most strategic and the most susceptible first.
1 – Climate Change. US Navy, Energy, Environment and Climate Change. Available at: http://greenfleet.dodlive.mil/climate-change/ [Accessed November 3, 2016].
2 – Chief Of Naval Operations, U.S. Navy Arctic roadmap 2014-2030, Available at: http://www.navy.mil/docs/usn_arctic_roadmap.pdf [Accessed November 4, 2016].
3 – National Climate Assessment. National Climate Assessment. Available at: http://nca2014.globalchange.gov/report [Accessed November 4, 2016].
4 – Chief Of Naval Operations, Navy Climate Change Roadmap, Available at: http://www.navy.mil/navydata/documents/ccr.pdf [Accessed November 4, 2016].
5 – Climate Change Deemed Growing Security Threat by Military … New York Times. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/14/us/politics/climate-change-deemed-growing-security-threat-by-military-researchers.html [Accessed November 4, 2016].