Who's Still Fighting Climate Change? The U.S. Military

Who's Still Fighting Climate Change? The U.S. Military

Despite political gridlock over global warming, the Pentagon is pushing ahead with plans to protect its assets from sea-level rise and other impacts. Here's how.


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Earth Science, Climatology, Engineering, Geography, Human Geography, Social Studies, Civics


Naval Station Norfolk Destroyer Ross

The U.S. military is fighting against the ravages of climate change despite congressional intransigence to act. Many of its assets, including Naval Station Norfolk, are hurt by warming temperatures. The destroyer USS Ross enters Naval Station Norfolk.

U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Christopher B. Stoltz
The U.S. military is fighting against the ravages of climate change despite congressional intransigence to act. Many of its assets, including Naval Station Norfolk, are hurt by warming temperatures. The destroyer USS Ross enters Naval Station Norfolk.

NORFOLK, VIRGINIA — Ten times a year, the United States' Naval Station Norfolk floods. The entry road swamps. Connecting roads become impassable. Crossing from one side of the base to the other becomes impossible. Dockside, floodwaters overtop the concrete piers, shorting power hookups to the mighty ships that are docked in the world’s largest naval base.

All it takes to cause such disarray these days is a full moon, which triggers exceptionally high tides.

Norfolk station is headquarters of the Atlantic fleet, and flooding already disrupts military readiness there and at other bases clustered around the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, officials say. Flooding will only worsen as the seas rise and the planet warms. Sea level at Norfolk has risen 36.8 centimeters (14.5 inches) in the century since World War I, when the naval station was built. By 2100, Norfolk station will flood 280 times a year, according to one estimate by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

This visibly changing geography made Norfolk the preeminent example for the climate challenges confronting the U.S. Defense Department—and seems as good a setting as any to consider the fate of climate science and the military in the new political era in Washington that will set the bar for how climate science is pursued by the government.

The Defense Department has been planning for climate change for more than a decade, often in the face of roadblocks set up by climate science skeptics in the U.S. Congress. In 2014 and again in 2016, Republicans in the House of Representatives added language to Defense Department spending bills prohibiting funds from being spent to plan or prepare for climate change. Terrorism is the greater threat, the authors of those prohibitions declared, and federal funding should be steered toward snuffing out ISIS (the fundamentalist organization, often designated as a terrorist group by the United States and many other governments) instead. Both times, the restrictions were nullified by the Senate. It is too early to say whether efforts to bar defense spending on climate change will be tried again.

"That potential exists," says retired Marine Corps Brigadier Gen. Stephen Cheney. "We'll see how strongly they feel about it, given the plethora of other challenges in front of the new administration."

The Defense Department assiduously avoids the politics of climate science debate, while pressing ahead.

“We don’t talk about climate change,” Capt. Dean VanderLey told visiting journalists in a tour of the base before the election. “We talk about sea-level rise. You can measure it.”

Raft of Risks
The Defense Department operates more than 555,000 facilities on 28 million acres of land with a replacement value of $850 billion, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO). Some 1,200 military installations are in the United States. GAO auditors surveyed the military’s holdings in 2014 to assess the climate impacts. Their report, which drew little notice at the time, focused on 15 unidentified sites where sea-level rise and severe weather are damaging runways, roads, seawalls, and buildings.

In the Arctic—the region warming faster than anywhere else on Earth—the combination of melting sea ice, thawing permafrost, and sea-level rise is eroding the Alaska shoreline enough to damage several U.S. Air Force radar early warning and communication installations. At one base, half a runway has given way to erosion, preventing large planes from using it. Damage to a seawall has allowed waves to wash onto the runway at another base. Thawing permafrost has also affected access to training areas.

In the West, drought has amplified the threat of wildfires and deluge has damaged roads, runways, and buildings at bases there. Wildfire in Alaska has interrupted training. Last year in California, fires threatened Camp Pendleton, the Marine Corps’ major West Coast base, which lies 77.2 kilometers (48 miles) north of San Diego, as well as Vandenberg Air Force Base, 104.6 kilometers (65 miles) north of Santa Barbara. A year’s worth of rain fell in 80 minutes at Fort Irwin in the Mojave Desert in California, causing $64 million in damage to 160 buildings, including barracks, roads, a bridge, and 3.353 meters (11,000 feet) of fencing.

The most daunting threat remains sea-level rise—on U.S. shores and overseas in places like Korea, Singapore, and elsewhere in the Asia Pacific. An Air Force radar installation used to track space junk, built on an atoll in the Marshall Islands, at a cost of $1 billion, is projected to be underwater within two decades, the Associated Press reported.

On U.S. shores, a meter (three feet) of sea-level rise, a mid-range estimate that could occur by 2100—would threaten 128 coastal bases, valued at $100 billion. Among the most vulnerable are 18 installations arrayed along the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts from New London, Connecticut to Key West, Florida. Nine of those properties are major Navy hubs. At least four bases in Florida, Virginia, and South Carolina—including the Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island—could be mostly submerged by century’s end. Likewise, parts of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, where tidal flooding now occurs 50 times a year, could also be under water.

Full Steam Ahead?
But it is Norfolk and Virginia’s Tidewater region that is uniquely vulnerable. Sea-level rise is occurring at twice the global average, and at the highest rate along the Atlantic coast, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. In addition to the encroaching ocean, the land is also sinking.

The condition has spurred the Defense Department to join forces with state and local officials and scientists in the cities of Norfolk and Virginia Beach in an experimental partnership to find a way to adapt the region—not just the bases—to the watery future they face. At the navy base, several of the concrete piers have been replaced with double-deck piers. Power lines are no longer vulnerable to flooding.

VanderLey would like to replace more of the piers. But the elephant in the room amid all the planning is cost and funding. Billions are required, and that kind of funding is hard to come by even when members of Congress are not arguing about whether climate change exists.

“That’s the hard issue,” says retired Rear Adm. David Titley, who now heads the Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk at Pennsylvania State University. “How are we going to pay and which areas are we not going to protect? No politician wants to raise his or her hand and say, ‘you guys are out of the fence line.’ We saw this in New York with Mayor Bloomberg. ‘We don’t retreat.’ Well, guess what. The ocean gets a vote.”

Retired Rear Adm. Jonathan White and former chairman of the Navy’s Task Force Climate Change says there’s no time to spare for convincing budget writers to act. By the time the seas have risen, the ice will have melted and there will be no turning back.

“Timing is critical,” he says. “Just like timing for sorties out of Norfolk in advance of a hurricane is critical—if you wait too late, you can’t get the ships out because the seas are too high. The same kind of thing is going on with sea-level rise. You can’t wait for a certain yes, it’s going to be here or not. You’ve got to make decisions in advance, based on the uncertainty that you have.”

Originally published Feb. 7, 2017

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Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
Laura Parker, National Geographic
Production Managers
Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
Jeanna Sullivan, National Geographic Society
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Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
Clint Parks
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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