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Higher Temperatures from Climate Change Can Deteriorate Stored Ammunition and Explosives

Munitions exposed to heat

Munitions exposed to extreme heat can become unstable, leading to unplanned explosions at munitions sites, or UEMS. Credit: Getty Images

By Marc Kodack

Climate change will affect bulk commodities, e.g., ammunition, that the U.S. Amy relies on in combat operations. As temperatures increase in arid areas of the world, such as the Middle East (which is critically important to U.S. national security), the storage of ammunition and explosives (AE) under extreme temperatures can lead to instability and possible unplanned detonations. A recent article in Scientific American explores the storage of ammunition whereby “intense heat can weaken munition’s structural integrity, cause the thermal expansion of explosive chemicals and damage protective shields.”

Munitions can withstand short term rises in severe temperature. Heat-related detonations are 60% more likely in ammunition depots between late April and mid-September when higher temperatures occur in areas such as the Middle East. From the article:

Without regular monitoring, heated explosive materials within munitions can force their way through seals and filler plugs, a shell casing’s weakest points. Nitroglycerin becomes so sensitive when it absorbs moisture that even a slight shake can set it off…The physical effect of abnormally high temperatures is that a high level of stress occurs between components because of the different expansion rates of the individual materials…Higher temperatures also raise the risk of handling errors by fatigued armorers.

This significantly raises risks for safe handling and storage. The U.S. Army has procedures for AE storage in tactical situations which can vary from a storage facility to an open area with/without containers. AE can be stored on the ground or an unimproved surface. According to the Army’s 2016 guidance on the issue, many “AE items are extremely sensitive to heat and react at temperatures substantially lower than those required to ignite ordinary wood, paper, and fabrics…deterioration is faster when moisture is combined with a rise in temperature.” Climate change is not mentioned as a variable that needs to be considered when planning for storage of AE, however.

Regulating temperatures in arid environments within an acceptable range that does not lower AE usability, whether the AE is stored inside a facility or in the open, will be challenging. The increased temperatures from climate change will exacerbate all tactical storage conditions. This also includes any captured munitions that need to be secured and stored. Ensuring that sufficient AE of the types and quantifies remain viable and available for use when needed, is another area where climate change will affect the Army’s ability to project power and achieve its operational objectives as part of the Joint Force.

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