By Sinead O’Sullivan, Research Fellow, The Center for Climate and Security
In their initial conception, drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), were used exclusively in the context of military missions – providing reconnaissance, intelligence and surveillance in hostile environments unsafe for human involvement, with a new weapons capability. While drones are still popularly perceived in their military context, their uses have spread far beyond those applications. Drones are expanding rapidly in the commercial side of the aerospace industry, and significant technology transfer is moving from the drones’ military beginnings and into the hands of the civilian consumer.
One space where drones straddle military and civilian applications is in regards to a changing climate and the security consequences that follow. This is especially the case in regards to earth observation and disaster management.
Earth observation (EO) in the context of climate and security can be manifested in several ways, and generally involves collecting data about particular environmental conditions. Drones are proving useful for the collection of climate change related data that has been historically very difficult to record. One such example is the use of drones to measure the rate at which glaciers in the Peruvian Andes are diminishing.
Traditionally, pole markers are placed over the glacier and changes of the glacier are recorded by physically walking the glaciers, and extrapolating information in between. Now this data collection takes minutes to collect instead of months, and data analysis can be performed immediately. Creating this data so quickly and more accurately than before is changing the way that climate scientists are able to create models and forecasts in such an unpredictable climate. This strategy, being implemented by Ohio State University, is aimed at creating a template for research teams that are investigating water security in other areas of the world with much larger populations, including China and India. In these areas, data collection is currently inhibited by both economic and environmental constraints and the global consequences of water insecurity are much more severe.
Related to human security, EO drones are now being used to monitor human rights violations and predict climate-related conflict in high-risk areas. Food and natural resource shortages due to climate change are exacerbated by a population increase, further straining regional capacity to provide human security in some areas. In the Republic of South Sudan, the cultivable land area is being negatively impacted by climate change. Large-scale land use changes have been monitored by EO techniques, and quantifying these changes has shown linkages between the right to access land and conflicts in 2011. Serving as one of the frictions that led South Sudan into war during its attempted transition towards independence, it is shown that being able to use EO to create models that can help predict climate-exacerbated conflict is critical.
The process of climate change, and the increasing scale of natural disasters that encompasses this change, is triggering complex patterns of human mobility and natural resource allocation– both key drivers of instability to international security threats. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the United Nations Space-based Information for Disaster Management and Emergency Response (SPIDER) have identified the importance of national and international agencies strengthening their disaster management to reduce these threats. The disaster management process refers to the creation of long-term, sustainable plans through which communities can diminish their vulnerability to natural and humanitarian hazards and disasters. There are four main steps involved in the process: mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery.
Natural disaster management is becoming increasingly important both domestically and globally. Drones have shown examples of being a critical technology for the preparedness and response stage of disaster management, by both monitoring climate conditions that are used to forecast disasters and by providing real-time data on the field immediately after a disaster.
In Nepal for example, the amateur drone organization Humanitarian UAV Network was able to map the earthquake-destroyed city of Kathmandu and surrounding areas with drones when most other official communications- human and technological- had failed due to the disaster. Being able to map a disaster-stricken area allows the flow of information and thus aid to the most impacted areas, drastically lowering the cost and risk of response missions and reducing the negative long-term impact on the victims. Furthermore, drones are being tested to monitor and track human migration through disasters from the initial response phase to the recovery phase where mass migration is unpredictable and threatens human security. With an increasing number of large-scale natural disasters due to climate change, finding an effective implementation of disaster management that integrates all of the technological platforms available is becoming a global imperative.
We are faced with a new era of climate change leading to unpredictable weather patterns, increased large-scale disasters and a strain on access to natural resources. As the severity of this phenomenon increases, the impact is being felt through international tensions, a reduction in the global economy and threats to domestic and international security. Governments must work intrinsically to build domestic capabilities to deal with such changes, but also recognize that this is a universal problem that will only be mitigated through international cooperation.
Access to readily available data is a significant prerequisite for comprehensively mitigating climate risks to national and international security. As technological capabilities increase, international institutions, governments and publics should seek to implement advanced data collection methods through drones. In this way, the international community can become more versatile in how it helps prevent and respond to the security implications of a changing climate in a secure, economic and timely manner.