U.S. naval installations are built at sea level. Sea level rise, therefore, leads to an increasing set of complications for these installations. You don’t have to look further than Norfolk, Virginia to see this reality playing out.
Sea level rise also potentially adds another level of stress to already intense weather events like Typhoon Haiyan. Data from the World Meteorological Organization shows that this is an especially problematic situation in the Philippines: “One tidal gauge at Legaspi in the Philippines showed a rise of 35 cms (14 inches) in average sea levels from 1950-2010, against a global average of 10 cms.”
The U.S. Navy and Marines are playing a significant role in the post-Haiyan disaster relief effort that killed thousands and displaced even more. As oceans warm up and as sea level rises, an increase in the frequency and intensity of such storms may lead to more disaster relief efforts abroad for the U.S. military, while also threatening installations at home.
Rear Admiral (RADM) David Titley, USN (ret.), former oceanographer of the Navy and former head of the U.S. Navy’s Task Force Climate Change, member of the Center for Climate and Security’s Advisory Board, and director of Pennsylvania State University’s Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk, has spoken to both of these challenges, as well as the importance of taking the security risks of climate change seriously.
Recently, RADM Titley responded to a three-year study conducted by the Army Corps of Engineers, which as reported by the Viginia-Pilot found that “Norfolk Naval Station’s vital infrastructure wouldn’t survive the kind of powerful storms and widescale flooding that rising seawaters are expected to bring by the second half of the century.” The Virginia-Pilot quoted RADM Titley on how the study should inform future planning and preparedness:
“What is our backup if you lose Norfolk?”…”What’s plan B?”
Mayport Naval Station in Florida couldn’t accommodate all of Norfolk’s ships, and after rounds of base closings in recent decades, there are fewer Navy bases to choose from. Unlike the Army or the Air Force, which could just pull back and build an airfield farther inland, the Navy won’t have those options.
“These questions are not or should not go away,” Titley said. “The Navy will be front and center in dealing with this option whether it wants it or not.”
More recently, RADM Titley was interviewed for an article “Haiyan Foretells Challenges for Military in Warming World” and in an exchange with Climate Central’s Andrew Freedman offered the following:
It is likely that the demand for humanitarian assistance missions will increase in the future, due both to climate change-related trends and population growth, much of which is taking place taking place in major cities that are located in low-lying areas with poor infrastructure and little protection from rising seas and major storms.
“Living on the coast is dangerous and it’s more dangerous than we like to admit,” he said. The Navy’s deployment post-Haiyan is typical of what they have been called upon to do in the Asia Pacific region, Titley said.
The threats to national security from climate change near and far are real. RADM Titley understands this, the U.S. military understands this, and it is high time we start listening. As RADM Titley has aptly noted in the past:
“In the military, if you wait until you’re absolutely certain that you’re in grave danger, you’re already dead.”
The time to begin preparing for climate risks in now.