Category: Defence

Flash flooding is a serious threat in the UK – here’s how scientists are tackling its prediction

Flash flooding is a serious threat in the UK – here’s how scientists are tackling its prediction

By Christopher J White, Laura Kelly, and Linda Speight

It’s becoming a familiar scene on the news: sodden British people wading through streets up to their knees in flood water. From Stirling to Sheffield, many parts of the UK in 2019 felt the impact of severe surface water flooding – often referred to as flash flooding – that followed torrential rain. As the climate changes and the UK experiences more intense summer storms, this is becoming an increasingly important issue.

Surface water flooding is what happens in built-up areas when heavy rainfall has nowhere to go. Unable to enter a watercourse or drainage system, the water instead flows over the ground causing flash flooding. Increased development means more areas are paved over, leaving fewer places for rainfall to drain away. And more frequent heavy rains overload the sewer and drainage network, which makes flash flooding more likely.

James Bevan, chief executive of the England and Wales Environment Agencysaid this kind of flooding “threatens more people and properties than any other form of flood risk”. In 2016, the UK government included surface water flooding on the national risk register.

Unlike river and coastal flooding, which can be widespread (as was seen in November 2019 across parts of northern England), surface water flooding presents unique challenges because it’s difficult to predict the location, timing and impact of what are typically localised events.

As the climate changes and urban populations grow, the number of people at risk of surface water flooding increases. This risk is particularly high in Scotland with over 100,000 properties identified at risk from flash floods. And for many people, even if their home or business is not at risk, there’s a good chance the roads or railway lines they use are.

Flash flood forecasting in Scotland

Although Scotland’s river and coastal flooding warning systems are well established, surface water alerting is still in its infancy. To address this gap, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) is continually developing its flood forecasting service with the Flood Warning Development Framework for 2017-21, which aims to explore and test innovative ways to warn people about flash floods.

Developing an effective forecasting system requires hydrological models that represent surface run-off, inundation and water movement, showing how water travels via surface and urban sewerage and drainage networks. Prediction models are also needed to quantify uncertainty in forecasting the rainfall that causes surface water flooding.

The uncertain nature of intense storms means that heavy rainfall can happen without much warning. This coupled with the pressure that excess natural run-off puts on man-made drainage networks when there are fewer places for water to go, makes surface water flooding forecasting a real challenge.

It’s a particularly acute problem in Scotland where the climate and geography contribute to the high uncertainties around predicting the location and timing of flooding. A 2016 study found the most dangerous flash floods in the UK include those that resulted from rapidly developing thunderstorm systems. Such storms can result in sudden and dangerous flooding in urban areas – yet these are the most challenging weather systems for flood forecasters to predict.

In the past five years, there has been a rapid development of thunderstorm numerical weather prediction computer models and advances in what is called probabilistic ensemble forecasting. This means instead of making a single forecast of the most likely weather, a set (or ensemble) of forecasts is produced, giving an indication of the range of possible weather ahead. Combined with an increase in computing power and skill, it is now becoming feasible to develop flash flood forecasting systems for urban areas.

Innovative solutions

Earlier this year, we were commissioned by SEPA to review the state of the science behind surface water flood forecasting in Scotland. Based on an extensive review of published research and reports, coupled with discussions with industry experts, we show that recent advances in computing, thunderstorm models, ensemble forecasting and surface water modelling mean that it is possible for SEPA to explore and build on the accumulated global knowledge about flash flood forecasting.

The risk of surface water flooding in Scotland is communicated through SEPA’s Flood Guidance Statement and Flood Alerts, where assessment is based on predetermined rainfall amount and duration thresholds and local expert knowledge. This helped to provide the UK’s first surface water flood risk forecasts for each of the big sporting events at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.

This information is useful to emergency services and the public, but the ability to provide detailed information on the location and timing of flash flooding remains limited. SEPA’s review highlights the growing need to provide more focused forecasts to help those concerned make the right decisions. It also identifies opportunities to learn how other countries respond to similar flooding that could be applied to Scotland.

The review provides several examples of initiatives that could improve the monitoring of flash flood impacts, including better use of crowdsourced data, as happens in the Netherlands, and better weather forecast visualisation tools (such as 3-D interactive displays and animations) as demonstrated in Spain.

The future

It may never be possible to prevent flash flooding, but reliable and early forecasting can help improve the capacity to prepare, respond and recover. The recent introduction of thunderstorm models and ensemble forecasting has resulted in significant advances in forecasting rainfall. This means it may now be possible to forecast flash flooding in urban areas, as well as make forecasts and warnings more focused and easier to understand, which in turn will help people make better, more informed decisions.

Producing flood forecasts for any particular location is likely to remain challenging beyond a few hours in advance – there will always be limits to the predictability of extreme rainfall. But our capacity to predict extreme weather is constantly improving, which SEPA may be able to apply to surface water flood forecasting.

Solutions for communicating uncertainty of heavy rainfall forecasts continue to develop. Our work means that a step-change in flash flood forecasting that builds on the experience of SEPA, the rest of the UK and other countries, is now possible. Making the best use of all available data – including social media and crowdsourced data – will increase awareness of flash flooding and help communities prepare and respond more effectively.


This article was originally published on the Conversation.
Cover photo by Rainbow International on Flickr.
Climate change, pandemics, biodiversity loss: no country is sufficiently prepared

Climate change, pandemics, biodiversity loss: no country is sufficiently prepared

By Gabriel Recchia & Haydn Belfield

There’s little that the left and the right agree on these days. But surely one thing is beyond question: that national governments must protect citizens from the gravest threats and risks they face. Although our government, wherever we are in the world, may not be able to save everyone from a pandemic or protect people and infrastructure from a devastating cyberattack, surely they have thought through these risks in advance and have well-funded, adequately practiced plans?

Unfortunately, the answer to this question is an emphatic no.

Not all policy areas are subject to this challenge. National defence establishments, for example, often have the frameworks and processes that facilitate policy decisions for extreme risks. But more often than not, and on more issues than not, governments fail to imagine how worst-case scenarios can come about – much less plan for them. Governments have never been able to divert significant attention from the here and happening to the future and uncertain.

recent report published by Cambridge University’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk argues that this needs to change. If even only one catastrophic risk manifests – whether through nature, accident or intention – it would harm human security, prosperity and potential on a scale never before seen in human history. There are concrete steps governments can take to address this, but they are currently being neglected.

The risks that we face today are many and varied. They include:

The ‘Baker’ Explosion, part of Operation Crossroads, a US Army nuclear test at Bikini Atoll, Micronesia, on July 25, 1946. Wikimedia Commons

Each of these global catastrophic risks could cause unprecedented harm. A pandemic, for example, could speed around our hyper-connected world, threatening hundreds of millions – potentially billions – of people. In this globalised world of just-in-time delivery and global supply chains, we are more vulnerable to disruption than ever before. And the secondary effects of instability, mass migration and unrest may be comparably destructive. If any of these events occurred, we would pass on a diminished, fearful and wounded world to our descendants.

So how did we come to be so woefully unprepared, and what, if anything, can our governments do to make us safer?

A modern problem

Dealing with catastrophic risks on a global scale is a particularly modern problem. The risks themselves are a result of modern trends in population, information, politics, warfare, technology, climate and environmental damage.

These risks are a problem for governments that are set up around traditional threats. Defence forces were built to protect from external menaces, mostly foreign invading forces. Domestic security agencies became increasingly significant in the 20th century, as threats to sovereignty and security – such as organised crime, domestic terrorism, extreme political ideologies and sophisticated espionage – increasingly came from inside national borders.

Unfortunately, these traditional threats are no longer the greatest concern today. Risks arising from the domains of technology, environment, biology and warfare don’t fall neatly into government’s view of the world. Instead, they are varied, global, complex and catastrophic.

Global and local. Maksim Shutov/UnsplashFAL

As a result, these risks are currently not a priority for governments. Individually, they are quite unlikely. And such low-probability high-impact events are difficult to mobilise a response to. In addition, their unprecedented nature means we haven’t yet been taught a sharp lesson in the need to prepare for them. Many of the risks could take decades to arise, which conflicts with typical political time scales.

Governments, and the bureaucracies that support them, are not positioned to handle what’s coming. They don’t have the right incentives or skill sets to manage extreme risks, at least beyond natural disasters and military attacks. They are often stuck on old problems, and struggle to be agile to what’s new or emerging. Risk management as a practice is not a government’s strength. And technical expertise, especially on these challenging problem sets, tends to reside outside government.

Perhaps most troubling is the fact that any attempt to tackle these risks is not nationally confined: it would benefit everyone in the world – and indeed future generations. When the benefits are dispersed and the costs immediate, it is tempting to coast and hope others will pick up the slack.

Time to act

Despite these daunting challenges, governments have the capability and responsibility to increase national readiness for extreme events.

The first step is for governments to improve their own understanding of the risks. Developing a better understanding of extreme risks is not as simple as conducting better analysis or more research. It requires a whole-of-government framework with explicit strategies for understanding the types of risks we face, as well as their causes, impacts, probabilities and time scales.

With this plan, governments can chart more secure and prosperous futures for their citizens, even if the most catastrophic possibilities never come to pass.

Governments need to look further into potential futures. FotoKina/Shutterstock.com

Governments around the world are already working towards improving their understanding of risk. For example, the United Kingdom is a world leader in applying an all-hazard national risk assessment process. This assessment ensures governments understand all the hazards – natural disasters, pandemics, cyber attacks, space weather, infrastructure collapse – that their country faces. It helps local first responders to prepare for the most damaging scenarios.

Finland’s Committee for the Future, meanwhile, is an example of a parliamentary select committee that injects a dose of much-needed long-term thinking into domestic policy. It acts as a think tank for futures, science and technology policy and provides advice on legislation coming forward that has an impact on Finland’s long-range future.

And Singapore’s Centre for Strategic Futures is leading in “horizon scanning”, a set of methods that helps people think about the future and potential scenarios. This is not prediction. It’s thinking about what might be coming around the corner, and using that knowledge to inform policy.

But these actions are few and far between.

We need all governments to put more energy towards understanding the risks, and acting on that knowledge. Some countries may even need grand changes to their political and economic systems, a level of change that typically only occurs after a catastrophe. We cannot – and do not have to – wait for these structural changes or for a global crisis. Forward-leaning leaders must act now to better understand the risks that their countries face.


This article was originally posted on The Conversation.
Cover photo by aladdin hammami on Unsplash.
Jakarta’s sea level prompts a move – at a price

Jakarta’s sea level prompts a move – at a price

By Kieran Cooke

LONDON, 9 September, 2019 – Spare a thought for the poorer residents of Jakarta, Indonesia’s sprawling capital city.

If your house on the Indonesian coast is threatened by the ocean because of climate change, then maybe – if you’re lucky and wealthy enough – a move to higher ground further inland may be possible.

But what happens when a whole city, with millions of people, is threatened by rising seas?

Jakarta has a population of more than 10 million. Established as the capital of what was the Dutch East Indies in the 17th century, the city is built on swamp land on the north-west coast of the island of Java.

But not only is Jakarta threatened by rising sea levels: rapid, largely unplanned expansion and building work has resulted in the city becoming, according to experts, one of the fastest-sinking urban areas in the world.

It’s estimated that up to 40% of the area of Jakarta is now below sea level. In northern districts of the city bordering the sea, rising sea levels are threatening many neighbourhoods, and flooding is common.

“This huge project will need to be done quickly to prevent Jakarta from sinking into the sea”

Attempts at tackling the issue have so far made little impact. A scheme designed to keep seawater out involving the construction of a 32 kilometre-long outer sea wall called the Great Garuda and 17 artificial islands straddling Jakarta Bay has been subject to long delays and finance problems.

“This huge project will need to be done quickly to prevent Jakarta from sinking into the sea”, says Joko Widodo, Indonesia’s president.

Ongoing extraction of groundwater from beneath the city is another serious problem, leading to frequent land subsidence.

Parts of Jakarta are sinking by as much as 25 cms each year. Experts say that in some areas the land has sunk by 2.5 metres over the last 10 years.

Now the Indonesian government is taking radical action. It’s announced plans to move the country’s capital elsewhere – to more than 1,000 kms away in East Kalimantan, on the Indonesian portion of the island of Borneo.

Five years to completion

Officials talk of creating a “smart and forest” city; the project, which has an initial price tag of US$33 billion (466,650 bn Rupiah), will involve the foundation of a new administrative capital, with up to 1.5 million civil servants being relocated.

Jakarta will retain its role as Indonesia’s commercial and financial hub. The government says work on the new city is due to begin in two years’ time and to be completed by 2024.

The construction of the new capital might go some way to settle one set of problems, but is likely to give birth to others.

The island of Borneo – shared between Indonesia, Malaysia and the small state of Brunei – contains one of the world’s largest remaining rain forests, a carbon sink which soaks up vast amounts of climate-changing greenhouse gases.

In the early 1970s three quarters of Borneo was covered in rainforest. By 2010, the forests had shrunk by more than 30%, with huge areas logged or given over to palm oil plantations.

Orangutans killed

Large areas of peat – another vital repository for hundreds of thousands of tonnes of climate-changing carbon – have also been destroyed. Indonesia has undertaken several coal-mining projects in its part of the island.

As the forests have been chopped down, wildlife has suffered. Numbers of orangutan have dropped by an estimated 100,000 over the past 20 years.

Despite pledges by the Indonesian government to build a sustainable “green” city and carry out various environmental surveys, many are sceptical about the building of the new capital.

Experts point out that many environmentally important areas of Borneo have already been destroyed by haphazard, badly planned development projects. They say the new plans, including the construction of a whole city, are only going to make the situation worse.

The daunting prospect facing Jakarta is likely to confront many other countries within the next few decades. Last month US researchers said the rising threat of flooding caused by climate change meant Americans should prepare for managed retreat from their own coasts.


This article originally appeared on The Climate News Network.
Cover photo of Jakarta, Indonesia from Wikimedia Commons.
Life’s a beach: Nature-based solutions for coastal protection

Life’s a beach: Nature-based solutions for coastal protection

By Acclimatise News

Nature based solutions, including coral reef restoration and artificial coral reefs, protect one of tourism’s primary draws – the beach.

White sandy beaches and year-round summer temperatures attract tens of millions of tourists each year to destinations like the Caribbean. Tourism remains a vital source of economic development for tourist hotspots. Even in countries with a colder climate, where beaches don’t attract international acclaim, they are often places of community gathering and recreation.

The beach is an attraction in and of itself and, at the same time, provides coastal protection for communities and infrastructure from erosion and in-land flood risk. However, beaches themselves are prone to degradation by extreme weather events (such as hurricanes) and daily tidal activity, thereby reducing the beaches aesthetic appeal and capacity for coastal protection. Maintaining beach resilience should, therefore, be an important priority for coastal and tourism-driven communities.

Various technologies have been deployed world-wide for beach protection, with the ‘quick and dirty’ solution being sand re-nourishment projects. In the U.S. the government has funded to the order of US$ 9 billion for such projects, which entail the dumping sand in regions where beaches have eroded. This option is costly and temporary and does not offer a sustainable solution to a long-term problem that is likely to worsen with climate change. Construction of hard and semi-hard infrastructure (such as sea-walls, groynes and breakwaters) have also been deployed globally and in certain instances have provided important coastal protection services. However, they carry the possibility of risk transfer to adjacent non-protected areas and are considered an eye-sore in scenic and tourist areas.

Figure 1: Sand replenishment project / Waikiki Beach / Source: Wikimedia Commons

In recent years, natural and hybrid approaches to beach erosion and sand loss have been piloted. These Nature-based Solution (NbS) include coral reef restoration, artificial coral reef construction, natural engineering projects, and sand and dune restoration. NbS can protect against beach erosion, while delivering a series of co-benefits, some of which may generate income streams. For example, coral reefs can dissipate up to 97% of incident wave energy and provide revenue generating opportunities associated with snorkeling, diving, fishing, aquarium trade and more. There is no one-size-fits all solution to the site-specific complexity of beach erosion, however several innovative examples illustrate how NbS can be leveraged to offer coastal protection services.

What are Nature Based Solutions? (NbS)

There are an abundance of NbS definitions, and no universally accepted one. In short, NBS are those that that are designed, inspired or supported by nature. Here’s one definition from the European Commission’s Directorate General for Research and Innovation: NbS are solutionswhich aim to help societies address a variety of environmental, social and economic challenges in sustainable ways, including actions which are inspired by, supported by or copied from nature. NbS use the features and complex system processes of nature, such as its ability to store carbon and regulate water flow, in order to achieve desired outcomes, such as reduced disaster risk, improved human well-being and socially inclusive green growth”.

To get a better understanding of what this entails, it is helpful to look at examples from practice around the world.

Now Jade Hotel, Mayan Riviera Mexico, Artificial Coral Reef

The Now Jade Riviera Cancún Resort and Spa (“Now Jade”) is located in the popular tourist destination of Puerto Morelos, Mexico on the Mayan Riviera, in close proximity to the Mesoamerican reef. In 2008, Now Jade embarked on a long-term beach restoration program focused on the construction of two modular artificial reefs and future restoration of the sand-dune ecosystem.

Prior to 2007, the Puerto Morels beach experienced a pattern of sand accretion in summer months and retreat during winter months, with sufficient year-round sand for tourist activities. In 2007, the coast was hit by hurricane-induced waves which caused high volumes of sand to travel from north to south. An adjacent breakwater stopped the longitudinal currents and induced chronic erosion of the beach. In 2010, with the beach narrowing with on-going erosion, it was decided that beach resilience efforts were necessary to regenerate the sand.

Several options for coastal protection were considered including hard structures. However, tourist-specific considerations required that the structure be not only aesthetic, but also ecologically friendly. An artificial coral reef was selected for the following reasons; reefs are effective at wave energy dissipation, the proximity of the Mesoamerican Reef would facilitate species colonization, the dynamics of sand transport had already been negatively affected by the existing breakwater and the artificial reef would bolster the conservation and tourist appeal of the area.

Following a series of site-specific assessments and laboratory tests, the reefs, made out of pre-fabricated concrete elements, were constructed 120 meters offshore. Five years after construction, an assessment showed that the reefs have contributed to beach recovery, with a natural growth and retreat cycle, and attracted fish and coral colonies from the nearby Mesoamerican Reef. An influx of Sargassum seaweed in 2015 created a temporary decline in reef colonization, however since then the reef has been recovering biological richness in the absence of human intervention.

Mayacoba Resorts: Coastal restoration project

Mayakoba is home to four luxury resorts located on the Mayan Riviera; Andaz Mayakoba, RoseWood Mayakoba, Fairmont Mayakoba and Banyan Tree Mayakoba. As with other beaches in the region, Mayakoba has experienced significant sand loss to the order of 15 feet per year since 2005, spurred by two hurricane events. This presents significant challenges for resorts, which off the primary attraction of long, white sandy beaches for guest enjoyment. Furthermore, beach erosion could negatively impact 150 acres of protected mangroves surrounding the resorts, which are home to alligators, turtles, and various bird species, and even further undermine the resorts coastal resiliency.

Mayakoba, in consortium with local organizations, embarked on reef restoration efforts to enhance coastal protection services and biodiversity. Scientists transplanted fragments from a coral nursey onto a concrete grid on the ocean floor on the Mayakoba coast. The artificial reef is expected to connect with the nearby existing natural reef to form a self-sustaining colony, capable of providing coastal protection services.

As of spring 2018, initial trials were performing well with the Elkhorn coral thriving in the concrete barriers. It is expected to take two years for the coral to mature into a strong colony and four years for the coral to start reproducing. Once mature, the reef is expected to help protect Mayakoba beaches from erosion, and attract fish and marine life to create a more desirable attraction for snorkelers and divers.

Mayacoba’s Fairmont even offers a ‘Coral Reef Restoration Package’ where guests can participate in restoration efforts as a part of their stay. Twenty Five percent of revenues from this package are redirected to fund reef restoration efforts. The resort is able to capture an additional revenue stream through this package, offering an additional economic incentive for investment in coastal restoration.

There are a series of challenges that could compromise the corals restoration efforts, and the services they provide. This includes coral bleaching driven by increased sea surface temperatures and sunlight exposure, sargassum influx, extreme events (i.e. hurricanes that cause structural damage to the reef, and industrial run-off. The inability to effectively regulate the anthropogenic activities (i.e. greenhouse gas emissions, and agricultural runoff) creates a challenge for the successful revival of coral reefs.

Netherland’s Sand Motor

The Dutch have long been striving to protect their low-lying country from sea level rise and coastal erosion. In the past, the sand dunes on the Dutch peninsula were replenished every 5-year, via sand shipment from the North Sea. However, the Dutch wanted to pilot a lasting solution that would allow the country’s southwest beaches to regenerate on their own, a popular kite-surfing destination and recreational area for the urban population.

The creation of the Sand Motor, a large artificial hook shaped peninsula, changed the dynamics of the winds, waves and currents to gradually spread sand along the coast and form a new dune landscape and wider beach. The sand motor was initially constructed with 21.5 million cubic meters spread across an area of 128 hectares, and natural processes are expected to add an additional 35 hectares to the coast over a 10 km stretch in the next 20 years. By depositing a large volume of sand at once, the sand motor avoids repeated disruption to the seabed.

Preliminary 5-year results of the Sand Motor show that it is acting mostly as expected, supplying sand to a five kilometer stretch of beach, with 1.5 million cubic meters of sand moved to the north, and nearly 1 million cubic meters moved to the south. Only dune growth in the coastal area near the Sand Motor is progressing slower than expected. The expansion of the beach has provided a greater area for community recreation and outdoor activities, and has become somewhat of a tourist attraction in itself.  Long-term analysis of the Sand Motor (20 years) will ultimately show whether it is a viable solution, and can be reproduced as a coastal management strategy in other countries.

Please see this publication for further information on the Sand Motor.

Challenges of these projects and steps forward

These case studies provide insight into a variety of NbS that can be deployed for coastal protection. The solutions are not driven by an ecological imperative, but rather a coastal protection one that delivers ecological co-benefits. This distinction is important as it puts NbS on the same playing field as engineered solutions. A solution that effectively fulfills the coastal protection imperative in a cost-effective way, while delivering a series of co-benefits (that traditional infrastructure does not) will generate win-win results for businesses, communities and tourists.


Cover photo by Japser Boer on Unsplash.
Climate change poses security risks, according to decades of intelligence reports

Climate change poses security risks, according to decades of intelligence reports

By Dana Nuccitelli

A series of authoritative governmental and nongovernmental analyses over more than three decades lays a strong foundation for concern over climate change implications for national security.

Most recently, the national intelligence community – including the Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and other federal agencies – in January 2019 submitted the annual “Worldwide Threat Assessment.” In it, the intelligence agencies stated that “climate change is an urgent and growing threat to our national security, contributing to increased natural disasters, refugee flows, and conflicts over basic resources such as food and water. These impacts are already occurring, and the scope, scale, and intensity of these impacts are projected to increase over time.”

That report from National Intelligence Director Daniel R. Coats, a former U.S. Republican senator from Indiana, was just the most recent in a long string of analyses that any upcoming challenges to such conclusions will have to address. Those conclusions clearly are at odds with the Trump administration’s efforts to undermine and reverse federal climate policies, and they cast doubt on the President’s next day tweet that “Perhaps Intelligence should go back to school!”

With the White House now reportedly consideringan executive order to establish a Presidential Committee on Climate Security that would contest such findings, it’s useful to review the history of climate change/national security official reports and findings. Although it’s unclear where the internal White House thinking on such a committee will lead, it’s been authoritatively reported that the push for such an effort is led by two individuals – Will Happer and Steven Koonin – widely known to have climate change views far different from those of the “established” science community as represented, for instance, by IPCC and the National Academy of Sciences.

Former Princeton physicist Will Happer, now with the White House staff, has a long history of scientifically challenged views about climate science. In the past a frequent favorite witness before House hearings overseen by members rejecting the climate science community “consensus,” Happer has acknowledged in a court case receiving funding from Peabody Coal and from other fossil fuel interests. In 2015 the New York Times reported that he was caught in a Greenpeace “sting” agreeing to take money from unknown Middle Eastern oil and gas interests in exchange for writing a report challenging climate science. Steven Koonin has written on blogs and in the Wall Street Journal pieces in stark contrast to the view of the overwhelming scientific consensus.

Concerned about reports of a potential new presidential review of climate change and national security, 58 former military and intelligence officials on March 5 sent a letter to the president cautioning that “imposing a political test on reports issued by the science agencies, and forcing a blind spot onto the national security assessments that depend on them, will erode our national security.”

Three decades of climate national security warnings

Climate and water resources expert Peter Gleick, in a recent review of more than 100 national security documents addressing climate change, has assessed decades of official national security strategy documents prepared to guide Democratic and Republican administrations on national defense priorities and military strategy. Those analyses began warning about threats to U.S. national security from environmental factors in the late 1980s, and in 1990, a U.S. Naval War College Report warned of potential climate change hazards:

Naval operations in the coming half century may be drastically affected by the impact of global climate change. For the Navy to be fully prepared for operations in this future climate environment, resources of both mind and money must be committed to the problem.

President George H.W. Bush’s national security strategy in August 1991 acknowledged climate change as a security issue. In 2003, concerned by research documenting past instances of abrupt climate changes, the Pentagon commissioned a report with the name “An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its Implications for United States National Security.” The report authors wrote:

an abrupt climate change scenario could potentially destabilize the geo-political environment, leading to skirmishes, battles, and even war … Violence and disruption stemming from the stresses created by abrupt changes in the climate pose a different type of threat to national security than we are accustomed to today.

They concluded their report cautioning about climate disruption and conflict becoming “endemic features of life.”

Fast forward to 2007: A group of retired three- and four-star admirals and generals working with the Center for Naval Analyses wrote a report on “National Security and the Threat of Climate Change.” Their report recommended that “The U.S. should commit to a stronger national and international role to help stabilize climate change at levels that will avoid significant disruption to global security and stability.” The authors concluded by saying:

Climate change can act as a threat multiplier for instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world, and it presents significant national security challenges for the United States. Accordingly, it is appropriate to start now to help mitigate the severity of some of these emergent challenges. The decision to act should be made soon in order to plan prudently for the nation’s security. The increasing risks from climate change should be addressed now because they will almost certainly get worse if we delay.

A year later, the National Intelligence Council judged that more than 30 U.S. military installations were already facing elevated levels of risk from rising sea levels.

Then came the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review also warning of security threats posed by climate change:

Assessments conducted by the intelligence community indicate that climate change could have significant geopolitical impacts around the world, contributing to poverty, environmental degradation, and the further weakening of fragile governments. Climate change will contribute to food and water scarcity, will increase the spread of disease, and may spur or exacerbate mass migration.

While climate change alone does not cause conflict, it may act as an accelerant of instability or conflict, placing a burden to respond on civilian institutions and militaries around the world.

The prognoses got no less worrisome when in 2014 the subsequent Quadrennial Defense Review again cautioned that climate change acts as a threat multiplier:

Climate change poses another significant challenge for the United States and the world at large. As greenhouse gas emissions increase, sea levels are rising, average global temperatures are increasing, and severe weather patterns are accelerating. These changes, coupled with other global dynamics, including growing, urbanizing, more affluent populations, and substantial economic growth in India, China, Brazil, and other nations, will devastate homes, land, and infrastructure. Climate change may exacerbate water scarcity and lead to sharp increases in food costs. The pressures caused by climate change will influence resource competition while placing additional burdens on economies, societies, and governance institutions around the world. These effects are threat multipliers that will aggravate stressors abroad such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability, and social tensions – conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence.

In 2015, responding to a Congressional request, the Department of Defense stated that climate change is posing “a present security threat, not strictly a long-term risk … the Department is beginning to include the implications of a changing climate in its frameworks for managing operational and strategic risks prudently.”

There’s more. Many of those same concerns were echoed in the Trump administration’s January 2019 Department of Defense report documenting vulnerabilities of 79 military installations to events exacerbated by climate change impacts such as floods, droughts, and wildfires. As just one example, Naval Station Norfolk – the world’s largest naval base – is already experiencing frequent sunny-day flooding.

It’s unclear at this point just when – and even whether – the Trump administration will proceed with establishing a formal overview of climate change/national security links. What is clear is that any such review will have an extensive body of previous official reports to upend if it ends up reflecting conflicting viewpoints.


This article was originally published on Yale Climate Connections.
Cover photo from Wikimedia Commons.
Will end users demand to see inside climate services ‘black boxes’?

Will end users demand to see inside climate services ‘black boxes’?

As the demand for climate services grows, questions are beginning to be asked about the assumptions behind some of the tools and methods used to translate climate science into information that can be used by decision-makers. Many of these assumptions are considered to be proprietary, and therefore exist within a ‘black box’, with end users unable to scrutinise the methodologies. This means that users are not able to fully understand the assumptions that underpin the findings of the climate risk analysis, and the recommended course of action. Are we making resilience decisions in the dark?

There are an estimated 350 commercial climate and weather services providers in the U.S., a rapidly growing figure as the market continues to mature, and the impacts of climate change to commerce become more frequent and intense. In the U.S., commercial service providers rely on publicly available data, from agencies like NOAA and NASA, to develop value-added products and services for decision-support. This may be targeted at a particular sector, or in relation to a particular climate or weather hazard. An example of a value-added service could include a flood risk assessment tool that alerts property developers to flood risk potential. The property developer leverages this information to avoid investment in a particular area or build to withstand future flood risk potential.

The U.S. model of free and open access to data has created the foundation for a commercial value-added weather service industry that has enabled a sub-sector worth around $7 billion. For meteorologists or technological savvy entrepreneurs, this presents a large market opportunity to develop value-added tools based on information that is freely available. While anybody could theoretically access NOAA or NASA data to inform climate and weather-related decision-making the data is usually not available in formats that are accessible to a non-expert user. Therefore, the value-added process is an important step to make the information useable, and inform decision-making.

The users of the products likely do not understand the climate and weather data behind the applications, nor the value-added processes that render this information usable. The end results – a level of risk, or a dollar sign – may be the only information they are interested in. However, for those users that want to dig a bit deeper into the data and processes that inform the service, they may run into a black box. In crude terms, the general approach to developing a client-facing service appears to be: meteorological data (i.e. NOAA / NASA) + other data + client specific information + proprietary algorithm = value-added service.

While service providers may disclose the meteorological information that they are accessing (such as station data from NOAA) the process of adding value to this information is often considered proprietary. Commercial service providers generally do not disclose their methodology in fear of compromising their cutting edge against a competitor. They provide demos of the service but do not open up the contents. This raises the question of how can the products be open to scrutiny and comparison if they are proprietary? How can a user make an informed decision between one service and the next, if they don’t have substantial information about either?

Importantly, there is no consensus on governance standards for developing, or applying climate services (Adams et al, 2015). The WMO’s Global Framework on Climate Services is guiding the development of climate services for decision-support in climate sensitive sectors, particularly in developing countries, however there is no entity – to our knowledge – vetting commercial applications.

Climate services are a big and growing industry, with new firms continuing to enter the market. As individuals and businesses are increasingly making risk-management decisions based on the output of these services, worth large sums of money, what mechanisms are in place to ensure the integrity of these services? Will the black boxes become more transparent? Will a third-party be allowed to peer inside the black boxes? Or will the market grow in a similar to that of the catastrophe modeling industry where black boxes are the norm


Cover photo by Kelvin Yan on Unsplash.
Arctic melt spurs geopolitical tensions

Arctic melt spurs geopolitical tensions

By Elisa Jiménez Alonso

With the Arctic heating up twice as fast as the rest of the world, the borders its sea ice once protected are being left exposed. That so-called unpaid sentry is disappearing fast, giving way to not just new shipping routes but also security challenges countries in the region are reacting to.

Sea ice in the Arctic is being lost at a staggering rate of over 10,000 tonnes per second, by 2035 the region could be ice-free during summer. Speaking to The Guardian, Klaus Dodds, professor of geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London, explained “The unique Arctic security architecture has shape and form that come from natural extremities. If the Arctic becomes just another ocean, this breaks down. It’s elemental.”

This is also the reason why military activity in the Arctic is increasing: the prospect of a completely open water body is cause for concern among countries that until recently relied on sea ice for securing their northern borders. However, it should be emphasised that an increase in military activity does not imply imminent conflict. Comparing the situation to that in the South China Sea – where nations compete not through combat but by demonstrating presence – former Norwegian defence minister Espen Barth Eide said “It’s not because there is an immediate threat, it’s that, as an area becomes more important, it’s natural to have a heightened military presence.”

With national security concerns also comes an increased sense of competition for the growing business interest in the region. The Northern Sea Route from Asia to Europe can save ships up to 20 days travel time as opposed to the Southern Sea Route (Suez Canal passage). Parts of the northern passage historically have only been ice-free for two months each year. However, as mentioned above, that is rapidly changing. Remote places like Tromsø in Norway are becoming bustling tourism and business hubs. “Now we have a historically strange situation with political and economic activity in the Arctic. So many people are knocking on our door, including business and state representatives from China, Pakistan, Singapore and Morocco,” said Tromsø mayor Kristin Røymo.

The receding ice is a massive game changer, especially for Russia. Not only does the country have the largest border in the Arctic region but must of the Northern Sea Route currently extends across Russia’s exclusive economic zone. As long as the ice doesn’t recede beyond that zone, Russia will get paid by anyone who uses that shipping route. But as sea ice recedes further, ships will be able to travel in international waters. China, an observing member of the Arctic Council since 2013, is one of the countries exploring this possibility and the potential for infrastructure investments in a “Polar Silk Road”, threatening the exclusive position Russia has been in historically.

In addition to the growing interest in the Arctic for its shorter shipping routes, oil & gas companies are sniffing their chance at exploring new oil and gas fields. Norway came under fire earlier this year for having approved over 80 new exploration licenses. At the Arctic Frontiers conference in January, environmentalists highlighted the dual role of oil as both a driver of climate change, which is heavily impacting the Arctic, and as a driver of increasing resource extraction in one of the most fragile and pristine environments on this planet. These tensions and the growing competition are also putting into question peaceful cross-border cooperation efforts that held up even during the cold war and regulated fishing, scientific research and even reindeer herding.


Cover photo by Menglong Bao on Unsplash
Battling the elements – Adapting to climate change on the UK’s Defence Estate

Battling the elements – Adapting to climate change on the UK’s Defence Estate

By Ben Sears

As custodians of vast areas of land and sea, the UK’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) must manage assets and adapt to climate change to ensure it can continue to meet the UK’s defence requirements.

UK Defence strategy and priorities

The UK’s national security has increasingly been making headlines in recent years, with concern over the threat of international terrorism, destabilisation in Europe and the rise of new and old global powers. One threat that has been less well publicised however, is that posed by climate change to its defence infrastructure and capabilities. This threat was officially recognised by the coalition Government in their 2010 paper A Strong Britain in an Age of Uncertainty: The National Security Strategy. Alongside international terrorism and hostile attacks upon UK cyber space, the paper recognised “A major accident or natural hazard which requires a national response, such as severe coastal flooding affecting three or more regions of the UK…” as being a Tier 1 Priority Risk.

Although it highlights climate change threats, the strategy is focused more on the physical effects of climate change becoming “increasingly significant as a ‘risk multiplier’, exacerbating existing tensions around the world,”rather than the potential of climate change to affect defence infrastructure and training capabilities here in the UK.

Climate-related threats to defence estate

The MoD is one of the UK’s largest landlords, owning and holding rights to over 431,300 hectares, or1.8% of the UK land mass. As well as owning strategically important defence infrastructure,such as nuclear submarine bases and munitions stores, it also owns and manages sites of ecologically and historically important land, with management responsibility for approximately 170 designated Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and Special Areas of Conservation (SAC), many of which are of international significance.

The impacts of climate change are already being felt on the MoD estate. Some coastal sites have experienced increased flood events in low-lying areas such as Kent and Pembrokeshire, leading to periodic site closures and the interruption of military training. An article in The Telegraph highlighted the impact of coastal flooding on MoD sites, saying that “Many of the military’s most important facilities, including RAF Brize Norton, the RoyalNavy bases at Plymouth and Portsmouth, and the Ministry of Defence’s headquarters in London, face a ‘direct impact’ from floods by 2020.” Fires on training areas such as Sennybridge and Salisbury Plain have historically occurred, particularly during live firing exercises, however these have increased in frequency, with 2018 recording a higher number of incidents than previous years.  Following the dry spell in June this year, exhaust fumes from a US Osprey aircraft caused a fire which destroyed 150 hectares of dry grassland on the Sennybridge Training Area in the Brecon Beacons, Wales. IT services have also been disrupted during periods of extreme heat, with significant security implications.

As well as these major events,more extreme weather has led to an increase in building and rural maintenance work and related costs. Many buildings on the defence estate date back to the1950s and are susceptible to wind, rain and heat damage. The winter storms of2017 saw a significant increase in damage to roofs, fences and trees, requiring costly repairs and disruption to training.

Measuring the impact of climate change

The Defence Infrastructure Organisation (DIO) developed the Climate Impacts Risk Assessment Methodology (CIRAM) in order to take steps to identify the estate’s vulnerabilities on a site-by-site basis and build adaptive capacity where required [Editor’s note: The first iteration of CIRAM was co-developed by Acclimatise]. The CIRAM process “identifies the risks to defence outputs from current and future climate or extreme weather events, and identifies the actions required to maintain and optimise operational capability,” supporting a number of UK government programmes.

The CIRAM process has four key stages:

  • Stage A– Pre-workshop preparation
    • Identify who to involve
    • Identify site objectives and critical operational functions in delivering its defence output
    • Collation of site information (infrastructure and assets) and identification of potential issues
    • Collection of historic and projected climatic information for the site
  • Stage B– Risk workshop and production of a Climate Resilience Risk Register (CRRR)
    • Organising and delivering the risk assessment workshop
    • Facilitating the working sessions and completing the CRRR
    • Risk identification
    • Risk scoring
    • Identifying actions, processes and owners
  • Stage C– Post-workshop review
  • Stage D– Implementation
    • Adoption of CRRR and implementation with short,medium and long-term actions
    • Integration with management processes
    • Monitoring and review (full review every five years)

Adapting to climate change

As with any business, the findings of the CIRAM process often highlight the need for interdepartmental communication and planning and recognises areas that are likely to need to be addressed in order to protect vital defence infrastructure and maintain the operational capability and training requirements of the UK’s armed forces.Common areas that are likely to require action as a result of the CIRAM process include:

  • Strategic estate planning – the location, operation and maintenance of facilities may need to change
  • Equipment– specification and location of equipment may need to change
  • Health and safety policy – new risks may arise e.g. increased risk of fires or flooding
  • Personnel policy – working practices and skills may need to change
  • Infrastructure design and construction – major and minor project siting and specifications may need to be future climate proofed
  • Operational activities and training emphasis – may need to be revised to adapt to changing threats e.g. increased requirement of military to assist with natural disasters

Summary

As well as becoming a contributing factor to future global conflicts in which the UK is involved, climate change is also shaping the UK’s defence requirements, its estate management and its spending priorities. One of the major challenges for the defence estate is to ensure that it recognises and manages the risk posed by climate change, and adapts its infrastructure, its strategic and operational planning and its delivery accordingly.


About the author: Ben Sears PIEMA, PGCE Geography, BSc (Hons) Environmental Protection

 Ben Sears is an environmental and sustainability consultant,currently working on a major rail project on his doorstep in Wales, UK. He has experience in civil and commercial construction and is also a qualified Geography teacher.Ben’s main areas of interest include climate adaptation engineering, sustainable procurement and natural philosophy.

Cover photo by Philip Halling/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 2.0): Entering the Sennybridge Training Area Here the B4519 enters the Sennybridge Training Area.
Climate effects strike US military bases

Climate effects strike US military bases

By Alex Kirby

Climate effects strike US military installations today, a Pentagon study finds, despite White House failure to recognise any threat.

Once more, the administration of President Trump seems puzzled about how seriously – if at all – it should regard how climate effects strike US military abilities.

In December the president listed the global threats he reckoned the US was facing – and climate change didn’t get a mention. Now, though, the US Department of Defense says many of its bases are feeling the worrying impacts of – climate change.

Around half of US military bases worldwide are already experiencing those impacts, a Pentagon report says. A survey shows risks to military infrastructure related to climate and extreme weather are widespread, affecting nearly 50% of the 1,684 sites involved.

The survey, described as a vulnerability assessment, identifies several key categories of risk: flooding, both from storm surges and causes such as rain, snow, ice and river overflows; extreme heat and cold; wind; drought; and wildfire. The Pentagon says the risks are not confined to vulnerable coastal sites.

Worrying picture

The survey paints what the Center for Climate & Security (CCS), a US non-partisan policy institute composed of security and military experts, calls “a concerning picture of current climate change-related risks to military installations both at home and abroad”.

John Conger, a senior policy adviser at the CCS, is a former US deputy under-secretary of defense. He told the Climate News Network:

“This report represents the first survey of climate impacts across the Department of Defense’s installation enterprise, and while it does not detail specific impacts, the breadth of impacts it reports is significant.

“No region is immune from climate impacts. This work will form the foundation of vulnerability assessments and mitigation planning in the future.”

“What is potentially significant about this survey … is how widespread climate change-related risks to military assets already are”

As rapid climate change is projected to intensify most of these risks during this century, the CCS says, it is reasonable to expect that military sites will become more vulnerable unless significant resources are devoted to adaptation, or the rate and scale of climate change are reduced.

“What is potentially significant about this survey … is how widespread climate change-related risks to military assets already are”, it says.

The vulnerability statement insists that the Pentagon will do what it thinks necessary to protect its bases: “Our warfighters require bases from which to deploy, on which to train, or to live when they are not deployed.

“If extreme weather makes our critical facilities unusable or necessitates costly or manpower-intensive work-arounds, that is an unacceptable impact.”

Present danger

The CCS says the survey makes it clear that climate change is already affecting the US military’s ability to do its job, finding that many installations are “highly vulnerable to a variety of different types of extreme or severe weather events.  Scientists expect heat waves, flooding, drought and wildfires to all increase over the coming decades.”

On the president’s December failure to include climate change in his list of global security threats to the US, Mr Conger said: “While it is unfortunate that mention of climate was dropped from the strategy, it isn’t surprising.

“I expect the US military will continue to focus on mission assurance efforts and it clearly recognises climate change is one of the risks it must consider.  The omission won’t block the DoD from working on climate resilience, but its reduction in priority is likely to slow progress.”


Learn about Acclimatise’s work with the US Department of Defense by clicking here.

This article was originally published on Climate News Network and is shared under a Creative Commons license.

Cover photo by Michael Afonso on Unsplash.
US Secretary of Defense asserts that climate change is threat to national security

US Secretary of Defense asserts that climate change is threat to national security

By Gracie Pearsall

Earlier this summer, the U.S. Secretary of Defense, Jim Mattis, expressed his view that climate change is real and poses a threat to national security. Following his January confirmation hearing, Mattis provided written answers to “Questions for the Record” from several senators. ProPublica , an American non-profit investigative news site, published excerpts from the answers. In the exchange, Mattis emphasized that climate change poses a threat to the Pentagon’s assets and interests abroad, and confirmed the Department of Defense’s commitment to mitigating the consequences of climate change.

Climate change and the Pentagon

The Pentagon has long recognized the security threats the changing climate will bring, and has taken them into consideration when planning operations. In 2016, President Obama commissioned a report on the national security implications of climate change, and ordered federal agencies, including the Department of Defense, to fully consider climate change-related impacts on national security in policies and plans.

This report identified possible timelines and pathways for the physical, social, political, and economic effects of climate change on national security. It listed threats to the stability of countries, heightened social and political tensions, adverse effects on food availability, increased risks to human health, negative impacts on investments, and potential climate discontinuities as the principal pathways through which climate change will impact national security. It also found that during the next five years, the main climate-related threat will come from distinct extreme weather events and climate-related stress on currently strained conditions. Additionally, during the next 20 years, the principal threat will arise from disturbances and changes in broader climatic systems, such as sea level rise.

Mattis’ Strategic Focus on Climate Change

Mattis has held this stance on climate change for quite some time. In 2003, Mattis famously stated that the military must be “unleashed from the tether of fuel” – a view he reiterated in his recent written responses. Although he has taken this stance for a variety of reasons, he illustrated the Department of Defense’s commitment to exploring renewable energy, where it makes sense for them. Furthermore, when Mattis was commander of the U.S. Joint Forces Command, he signed off on Joint Operating Environment, a document that listed climate change as one of the principal security threats the military will face in the next quarter-century.

In his written answers, Mattis expressed his concern for climate change as a driver of instability and alter political dynamics. For example, he stressed that climate-related drought and water shortages are already impacting the stability of areas where US troops are stationed, particularly in the Middle East. He also cited the increased maritime access in the Artic due to the reduction of ice cover, as a key climate related change that will have significant impact on the Unite States’ security situation, as well as the political climate of the North Atlantic.

Mattis described climate change as a broad challenge that will require a “whole-of government” response to address.  He reassured the senators that the Department of Defense is prepared to mitigate and adapt to the changing climate. He wrote of the Pentagon’s plans to continue incorporating the impacts of climate change into defense planning and operations. He also wrote that the Pentagon is committed to ensuring that shipyards and bases will continue to function as required, in the face of rising sea levels and drought. Mattis’ written statements signal to other countries that, despite pulling out of the Paris Agreement, the US is still engaged in addressing climate change.


Cover photo by US Secretary of Defense/Flickr (CC BY 2.0): Jim Mattis during a visit to the United Arab Emirates earlier this year.