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Don Paul: Warming climate puts our military bases in jeopardy

Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida was located in killer Hurricane Michael’s Ground Zero strike zone. The base was decimated by winds gusting over 150 mph, with a still-uncertain number of our stealth F-22 Raptors put out of action.

The Air Force did all it could do to evacuate aircraft from the base in advance of Michael, but quite a number were in maintenance hangars, unable to fly.

The good news here is that while it was initially thought that 17 of the $337 million dollar aircraft in our out-of-production force of 183 Raptors had been destroyed, we know now, after more examination, that most of the aircraft are repairable.

As for the incredible destructive power of Michael, which was near Category 5 wind strength when it made landfall, it is difficult to quantify precisely how much the warming climate played a role in the storm's rapid intensification. Eastern Gulf sea surface temperatures were exceptionally warm for early October but, in recent decades, this year’s readings were not unprecedented.

However, there is not the slightest doubt those very warm temperatures fueled the rapid, explosive intensification. (This well-written New York Times article covers the topic on climate and hurricanes.)

The greatest uncertainties with hurricanes lie with wind strength. A couple of decades back, some models suggested that warming would increase the number of hurricanes. Now, following more refined studies and peer review, there is growing consensus that warming will more likely produce more very intense hurricanes but, possibly, fewer hurricanes overall. There are also the changes in the jet stream that may be unfolding related to arctic warming, which may already be leading to more stalled tropical systems like Florence and Harvey.

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Whatever the role the warming climate plays in fueling individual extreme weather events, we know our military readiness has already been affected, and those effects will increase in coming years. Many of our bases are located in the southeast, where extreme weather is becoming more common. Yes, there are bases in the plains, but Army and Air Force bases are more numerous in the Gulf states and southeast.

Of the armed services, the Navy seems to be the most proactive in researching the growing vulnerabilities of its forces and facilities.

Sea-level rise projections by 2100 range from 0.66 feet to 6.6 feet. NASA glaciologists, oceanographers, physicists and climate scientists think it may skew unrealistically toward a lower range than what is more likely, because the range doesn’t factor in the instabilities in the Greenland Ice Cap and outer Antarctic ice sheets very much and has, thus far, underestimated the ongoing melt rate.

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Choosing a middle ground — around 3 feet — in this range yields some alarming effects, especially for the Navy. Naval Station Norfolk, along with 17 other coastal facilities, would be looking at hundreds of coastal floods as the levels rise even more later in the century. The Norfolk base (the largest naval facility in the world) would be completely submerged by 2100.

The Navy is looking at a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). UCS is regarded by many as something of an advocacy group, unlike, say, the National Academy of Sciences. However, the effects from specific sea level rises are easily calculable in computer simulations and, for the suspicious, cannot be altered to “meet some agenda.” Peer review would quickly reveal any fudging of the numbers.

Even before laying eyes on this report, the Navy had been constructing storm surge mitigation mechanisms and structures for some facilities. Sea level rises are already causing some flooding problems at high astronomical tides in some locations, so the Navy didn’t need much coaxing from UCS to begin to face up to the problems.

The UCS report indicates 128 military installations would be threatened by sea level rises. About 43 percent of those are Navy installations, valued at $100 billion. There is also the effect on the personnel, military and civilian, who work at these bases.

Climate scientist Astrid Caldas told the Navy Times that her fellow study scientists were surprised at the amount of inundation that will develop from tidal flooding later this century. The original focus of the study had been on hurricane storm surge flooding, obviously a more extreme phenomenon.

As I’ve written previously, sea level rise rates are not uniform around the globe. There are even a few Pacific islands where levels have remained steady or dropped slightly, but mean sea level rises are continuing in nearly all coastal locations, with only those few variations due to ocean conveyor currents and pockets of cooler waters. There are many locations where rising sea levels are exacerbated by a subsiding landmass.

Nevertheless, rising sea levels are not theoretical. They are here. More heavy and flooding rain events in wetter parts of the middle latitudes are not theoretical. They are here. Both are tied to a mean warming climate, putting more evaporated water vapor in the air, melting more land ice and expanding ocean water volume through heating.

This Navy Times article concludes with a list of installations most heavily affected by the threat of inundation.

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