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Study: Atolls Hosting Critical Military Sites May Be Uninhabitable in 12 Years


Kwajalein Atoll

By John Conger, Director, The Center for Climate and Security

What do you do when your base runs out of water? That’s the question confronting the Department of Defense (DoD) in the wake of a recent analysis that says certain Pacific atolls may not be able to support human habitation as soon as 2030 (i.e. a mere 12 years from now), largely because sea-level rise will likely increase salt water corruption of the atoll’s drinking water supply, and drive routine flooding events that can damage equipment. That’s a problem not only for DoD personnel who live and work on these atolls, but for the local residents as well.

The research was originally funded by DoD’s SERDP program, so clearly the DoD had some idea this would be a problem. Nonetheless, this is exactly the kind of risk that should factor into decisions on where to place billion dollar radar facilities, but apparently did not.

As the Washington Post reports:

Case in point: the $1 billion “Space Fence,” a radar installation on Kwajalein Atoll that is intended to track tens of thousands of pieces of space junk — some of them as small as a baseball — in an effort to keep orbiting satellites and astronauts safe. The state-of-the-art project is being constructed for the Air Force by Lockheed Martin and is supposed to be fully operational later this year.

But its location on the tiny atoll already has raised concerns that the site could face routine flooding threats within a matter of decades and that saltwater could damage its expensive equipment.

The DoD response in the Washington Post article was measured, but notable in its acknowledgment of climate change risks:

“This study provided a better understanding of how atoll islands may be affected by a changing climate,” Defense Department spokeswoman Heather Babb said in a statement. “While no decisions have been made about Department of Defense activities on the islands based on the study, DOD continues to focus on ensuring its installations and infrastructure are resilient to a wide range of threats. The department’s understanding of rising sea levels will enable the military services and agencies in affected areas to make informed decisions on how to continue to execute their missions.”

In 2011, the Army conducted a study that said Fort Irwin’s primary water source would be used up by 2039. Given the criticality of the installation, the Army responded. It instituted water conservation measures and constructed a new water treatment plant that allows it to use new sources of groundwater and extends the installation’s water supply for decades. At the ribbon cutting ceremony for the new plant in 2016, then Assistant Secretary of the Army Katherine Hammack said: “Unless we have enough water to support the mission here, we don’t have a mission.”

This is a reminder that DoD looks at these issues through the prism of mission, and it points to a key question confronting the department – whether you’re on an atoll in the Pacific, a training base in the Mojave Desert, or a forward operating location in Afghanistan, you need to make sure your people have access to water to be able to support their mission. As climate change is making that more difficult, measures to address this problem need to be taken.

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