Former Pentagon official: U.S. ill-prepared for Arctic meltdown

Global warming poses new national security risks

Former Pentagon official: U.S. ill-prepared for Arctic meltdown

All sessions from the weather and climate summit in Breckenridge are being broadcast live on the web via UStream. You can find the exact times for the presentations here and links to the live streams here.

FRISCO, Colo. — Like the slabs of sea ice swirling along the coast of Greenland, the geopolitical puzzle of the Arctic is sure to change dramatically as the globe warms, and the U.S. may not be adequately prepared for those shifts, a retired U.S. officer said Monday at a weather and climate summit in Breckenridge.

The Arctic is warming at least twice as fast as the rest of the globe. New energy reserves and strategic shipping routes through the region could become flashpoints for future tension. Already, Russian President Vladimir Putin has threatened to build his military bases in the far north to exert influence in the Arctic.

“And he usually does what he says he’s going to do,” said Penn State meteorology professor and retired Rear Admiral David Titley, addressing a crowd of broadcast meteorologists at the annual Colorado-based Glenn Gerberg Weather and Climate Summit, warning the the U.S. is not prepared to meet emerging challenges in the region. “Some of the tensions we feel in mid-latitudes may manifest in the Arctic,” he said.

While other countries are investing billions of dollars in technology, engineering and information to prepare for the Arctic meltdown, the U.S. has done relatively little, according to Titley, who was picked by the Pentagon to assess what climate change means for the U.S. Navy.

So far, there have been a series of reports but no implementation. That could hamper efforts by the U.S. to maintain a presence during the increasingly longer periods of ice-free open ocean in the Arctic.

“There are a lot of strategies, but not a lot of funding,” he said, describing the political challenges of getting any funding at all for climate-related work in an era of forced belt-tightening. In one case, Titley said he prepared a budget proposal for a vulnerability assessment without ever using the word “climate.”

“That way, when the Republicans run their word-checkers it doesn’t show up and they vote for it, because it’s for the military,” he said. “I don’t think Congress will lead, but I think it can be led … We need to try and get enough Republicans to at least look at some of these issues,” he said, calling for more leadership from the Obama administration.

Climate 101

Titley offered a Climate 101 primer. There’s little doubt about the heat-trapping effect of greenhouse gases; that’s been know since European scientists did basic calculations way back in the 1800s, and direct observations of Arctic sea ice, glaciers and sea level clearly reveal the consequences, making arguments about climate change a waste of time.

“It’s like sorta like arguing against gravity,” he said.

There’s a lot at stake for humankind, he made clear, not just for polar bears. Climate change must be considered in the context of a world of more than 7 billion people who all want their increasing share of energy and security, he said, pointing to a growing body of research that connects climate change with regional conflicts.

“What happens halfway around the world can have a direct impact on our quality of life and our economy,” he said, singling out the Arab Spring of 2011 that coincided with a year of particularly bad wheat harvests nearly worldwide. Higher prices and shortages are especially hard-felt in the Middle East, one of the largest wheat-importing regions in the world, he explained.

“I’m not here to tell you that was caused directly by climate change, but the question is, how to meet challenges when we seem to be moving away from climate stability. This isn’t just about the environment, this is about people, it’s about us. Climate change is too important to be left to environmentalists,” he added.

Are We Ready?

Titley said he spent several years working on climate issues for the Navy, couching the questions in military terms like “capacity” and “mission-readiness” to avoid ideological tangles often associated with climate change. The Navy is key because most of the Arctic region will be open ocean when the ice melts away in the summer once and for all sometime in the next 50 to 100 years.

But the Arctic isn’t the only place to think about. Norfolk, Virginia is probably looking at five feet of sea level rise by 2100, he said, pointing out that the city’s port is home to the largest naval base in the western hemisphere. When he pointed out that threat, the commanders said they’d simply build a five-foot wall around the base, to which he responded that the base doesn’t exist in isolation.

“What about the town where the people who work at the base live? What about where you get your power from, where you get your internet from,” he said, explaining that the base’s situation shows the need to address climate change impacts in a coordinated, holistic way. And it will require a serious commitment of resources. The Netherlands has estimated it will spend $130 billion to maintain climate security through 2100 along a coastline equal to just a small slice of the U.S. Atlantic Seaboard, so securing vulnerable sections of coastline here is a huge endeavor, he said.

In another example, Titley described the critical strategic importance of the military base at Diego Garcia, in the Indian Ocean, far from the Arctic. The Diego Garcia base (on British territory) has been a staging area for every major operation in the Middle East the past few decades, and is part of the same low-lying group of islands as the Maldives, seen as particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels.

Titley said he suggested to the Defense Department that it should look at potential sea level rise threats to Diego Garcia. Loss of the island as a base would change every aspect of operations in that region, he said.

“But the things that keep me up at night are the broader threats,” he said, describing how acidifying oceans, resulting from CO2 uptake, could threaten basic food security for 2 billion people who primarily rely on the ocean for their main sources of protein. And the biggest climate wildcard is always water, especially in the world’s drier areas. Some experts are already predicting specific regional conflicts over rivers as Himalayan glaciers melt.

Summit Info

Several more sessions at the annual weather and climate summit are set to discuss the impacts of melting Arctic ice and all of them will stream live on the web with an opportunity for viewers to ask questions of scientists and climate researchers. The conference aims

foster dialogue between television weathercasters and meteorologists from top U.S. and Canadian markets and leading scientists and researchers.

Along with technically oriented sessions on new weathercasting tools, the conference always features a healthy dose of climate reality, and this year is no exception.

The Jan. 13 sessions focus on the 2014 hurricane season with a presentation Rick Knabb, director of the National Hurricane Center, as well as information on new satellite tools for short-term forecasting.

On Jan. 14, it’s back to climate and ice with James Balog, who has long documented the Arctic’s dwindling ice cap. Balog founded the Extreme Ice Survey to show the impacts of climate change with the photographic study of glaciers. The images provide a “smoking gun” for climate change, visual evidence that audiences young and old can understand.

Following Balog, Dr. Jim White will talk about Arctic ice loss, sea level rise and coastal impacts. According to White, the current level of CO2 in the atmosphere means the planet is already committed to far more climate change, not only in our lifetimes, but into our children’s lifetimes as well. Based on analyses of ice cores, White will also take a look at the concept of abrupt climate changes, which could test humankind’s capacity to prepare and adapt.

The final day of the conference includes a winter weather workshop with Paul Kocin, with the National Weather Service Weather Prediction Center
in College Park, MD. Kocin is also a winter weather expert with The Weather Channel.

A final session with Dr. Peter Gleick is on the risks of climate change and extreme hydrological events. Gleick, an environmental scientist with the Pacific Institute, says the hydrologic cycle is so closely tied to weather and climate systems that some of the most serious social challenges around human-induced climate changes are water-related.

The full agenda is online here, and you can bookmark this web page to find links to the live-streamed sessions. You can also follow the @wxcsummit Twitter feed for timely updates.

[ Top sea ice photo by Judith Slein.]

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About the Author

Bob Berwyn

He writes about energy and the environment while wandering the Colorado Rockies. He's instagram crazy, a digital-era mountain sickness.
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