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Defense Planning Can Guide National Response to Storms and Rising Seas

This Article Was Originally Published November 15, 2019 in The Center for Climate & Security's Blog.

The United States Department of Defense is coming to grips with the implications of climate change for national security, including the threat that more severe coastal storms and rising sea level pose to domestic military bases.

Because military bases depend on surrounding communities, decisions about how to protect or relocate military facilities need to be made in cooperation with state and local officials. More importantly, a determined effort by the Department of Defense to prepare bases for storms and rising seas could prove to be a catalyst that prompts the country as a whole to better recognize and respond to these risks.


Impacts of Storms and Rising Seas on Defense Facilities

Major coastal storms commonly kill hundreds of people and wreck homes, businesses and communities. Defense facilities are also at risk. In 2018, Hurricane Michael caused catastrophic damage to Tyndall Air Force Base near Panama City, Florida. Estimates of rebuilding costs are between $3.6 and $5 billion. Just a month earlier, Hurricane Florence damaged hundreds of homes on Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune on the coast of North Carolina. Scientists predict that, as the climate warms, coastal storms will become more intense.

A warmer climate also is melting glaciers and ice sheets and accelerating the rate of sea level rise. Global sea level is likely to rise between 2 and 4 feet by 2100 and continue rising for centuries after that. The National Intelligence Council estimated that some 30 domestic defense installations, especially naval bases such as the Norfolk Naval Station, are at risk from rising seas.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) evaluated eighteen domestic military bases and concluded that by 2100 nearly half of the sites studied are likely to lose 25 percent or more of their land area in the event of about three feet of sea level rise and 50 percent or more in the event of about six feet. Some of the hardest hit installations include Naval Air Station Key West in Florida, Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Virginia, and the Marine Corps Recruit Depot on Parris Island in South Carolina.


Military Response to Storms and Rising Seas

In 2018, a Military Expert Panel made up of retired flag rank officers working with the Center for Climate and Security concluded that “sea level rise, coupled with projections of increasingly frequent and intense storms, present significant risks to critical coastal military installations at home and abroad.” Still, the panel noted that “despite these strategic concerns, a comprehensive assessment of sea level rise and broader climatic impacts on U.S. military and national security strategy has not yet been conducted.”

The Panel went on to explain that “conducting assessments of strategic impacts will, however, not be sufficient,” and recommended that “information on the implications of sea level rise risks to military installations, and how it affects military and national security strategy, will need to find its way to senior leadership in order to drive high-level adjustments in strategic thinking about climate impacts.”

The message seems to be getting through to senior leaders. At his confirmation hearing in April 2019 to be the next chief of naval operations, Admiral Bill Moran noted “We are largely a waterfront service, so climate change when there’s rising waters are going to be a problem for us if we don’t address them. So we are in the planning stages to look at how to reinforce those areas.”

The fiscal year 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, enacted in August 2018, includes several new directions to prepare military facilities for climate change including sea level rise. New military facilities are to be built two feet above base flood elevation or three feet in the case of critical facilities. Congress also provided new authority to improve access roads outside a base at risk of flooding or inundation by rising seas.


Military-Community Cooperation

In addition, military facilities are not isolated islands along the coast and rely on civilian infrastructure for water, power, housing, and related services. The new authority for defense spending to improve roads at risk of flooding outside of bases is a step toward building cooperation between military bases and surrounding communities in addressing coastal flood risks.

Retired General Ron Keys, United States Air Force, a member of the Center for Climate and Security Advisory Board, aptly described the challenges posed by storms and rising sea in a 2016 speech: “We need to start considering, what can we do? Now I can build a moat, or a barrier around Langley Air Force Base, but the problem is a lot of my people live in Newport News, live in Hampton. A lot of my electricity comes in from outside. My fuel comes in from outside. So at some point we get to the point: ‘I’ve got to move to higher ground.”

Given these interconnections, community planning for storms and rising seas needs to keep up with military planning and military planners need to engage and support local preparedness efforts. As sea level rises over time and relocation of bases is needed, decisions about use of land areas that are now uplands for military purposes need to be coordinated with state and local plans for relocation of communities, critical infrastructure, and ecosystems

Preparing coastal defense facilities for the more severe storms and rising sea levels of the future will require a new, comprehensive effort by the Department of Defense to develop long-term plans for protection or relocation of facilities at risk. In some cases, state and community officials may embrace this work but in other cases base commanders may need to convince them to join the effort.

At the national level, senior military leaders need to urge Congress to provide funds to protect bases from storms and rising seas but also to support comparable protection efforts for surrounding communities. Ignoring the synergistic relationship between bases and surrounding communities is simply bad strategy that will weaken national security.

Finally, Congress and civil society more generally are divided over the how to respond to a changing climate including impacts like more severe storms and rising seas. Senior military leaders can be persuasive voices to help build a national consensus, not just for protecting bases and surrounding communities, but also for extending these protection efforts to the entire American coast.