Climate Defense: Military Technology Fights Climate Change

November 29, 2018

In military language, climate change is referred to as a “threat multiplier:” a risk that exacerbates the pre-existing challenges — such as disease and civil unrest — that the military faces in its missions.

Rising sea levels, erratic weather, polarized temperatures and other extreme climate events have pushed the US Military into a difficult tactical position. Defense leaders have turned to Industry 4.0 Technology — like remote monitoring and control, sensing and intelligent technology — to protect their assets and integrity.

What is climate change?

Climate change is a shift in weather patterns toward extreme weather events. It happens worldwide and is a naturally occurring event. However, climate change is happening faster than ever and in unpredictable ways. Due to the tenuous nature of climate science, some causes are unknown; however, scientists have linked certain human-related activity to the rapid change.

The weather phenomena associated are results of a simple cycle that has complex effects on the global climate system. This cycle is the relationship between greenhouse gases in our atmosphere and the sun. Greenhouse gases include carbon dioxide, methane and sulfur hexafluoride. These gases are referred to as greenhouse gases because they trap energy from infrared radiation, given off by the sun, as heat within the earth’s atmosphere.

Eventually, this trapped heat energy causes climate changes and extreme weather. For example, it alters the water cycle. It melts the polar ice caps, which causes a change in water levels and water composition levels; the melting also reduces reflective surface, which leads to more absorbed heat. High ocean temperatures cause water to expand, further increasing sea level rise and coastal flooding. As the heat energy travels around the lower atmosphere, it raises the average temperature, leading to more intense evaporation. With natural wind patterns, this moisture will be dropped in areas that are usually drier, leading to things like mudslides and flooding.

That cycle alteration is one consequence. Climate change is also affected by things like the acidity levels in the ocean due to carbon dioxide or other chemical reactions caused by these gases. It also doesn’t account for bioresponses to climate change, such as apex predators dying or nutritional bases of ecosystems disappearing. Climate change is an involved, multi-level issue.

How does climate change affect the military?

While climate change may be a divisive issue in civilian political discourse, it has been a worrying fact in the Department of Defense across several presidencies. Now, with a recent US government report affirming that fact on a civilian level as well, the issue is taking priority.

There are two parts to climate change that affect US Armed Forces: the effect on ecosystems and the effect on man-made infrastructure. Military reports say these effects make “the responsibility to prepare” more difficult and sometimes dangerous, diminishing military readiness and effectiveness.

The effect on ecosystems can be summarized as abrupt, unsustainable change. Rice fields in coastal areas are flooded, reducing food availability. Wildfires erupt more often and remain  out of control longer due to drought. Drought causes food insecurity or depletes the ability to sustain life, human or otherwise, in that space.

These abrupt changes create new immigration patterns, civil unrest, destabilize infrastructure and limit economic opportunity. These events can activate violence or disasters that require military attention or support. They drive up costs and create emergency situations. Quality of life for residents can go down. In extreme circumstances, especially after natural disasters, the ecosystem damage is so great that new diseases form or old foes resurface in polluted water and high temperatures. These medical problems can be hard to quarantine and may infect US troops.

Climate change affects human infrastructure by challenging it with unforeseen conditions. For example, in a January 2018 report, climate change negatively affected 50% of military sites, worldwide. Of these 3500 sites, 800 had been affected by droughts, 350 by extreme temperatures, and 225 by storm surge flooding, among other climate events. These bases serve as training sites, living areas, deployment zones and for other essential purposes. Repairs are time consuming and expensive, but necessary. For example, flooding and subsequent erosion at an airstrip at Cape Lisburne Long Range Radar Station in northwest Alaska will require a seawall replacement that costs over $45 million dollars.

Technology Fighting Climate Change

In 2014, The Depart of Defense released a climate change “adaptation road map” detailing climate change consequences and the military’s plan to combat it. Although the military has a robust history of R&D, it has drawn handy solutions from pre-existing technology.

These applications work on two levels to combat climate change: management and prevention. Some tools, like IIoT monitoring and data analysis, are used to identify current problems and react faster to mitigate consequences. Others, like net zero energy technology and clean manufacturing, are efforts to reduce greenhouse emissions and help beat climate change.

One of the largest prevention techniques undertaken by the military is its net-zero use policy. Using solar and wind energy, energy recycling, and power monitoring, military bases can eventually shift to 100% renewables and net-zero energy use. Reducing their dependence on fossils fuels pulls military teams out of potentially volatile economies and drives down demand on oil production, a large force in greenhouse gas emissions. As well, these installations, along with other water balance and waste reduction initiatives, can reduce water use to net zero, a needed ability for bases affected by droughts.

Major tools for coping with the consequences of climate change are IIoT monitoring and pump controls at bases affected by flooding, water quality issues and surging tides. These systems allow for a highly automated detection and response system during extreme water incidents. IIoT monitoring devices can detect when water levels are higher than expected and trigger alarms or other events — such as closing barriers — to prevent catastrophic water damage. Pump controls can be tied to these monitoring devices to activate a preventive pumping system to lower water levels near critical space areas.

A foundation for both coping and prevention is the military’s continued dedication to using science and specific metrics to create and harness data-based solutions. Everything from global footage, to climate science measurements, base reports and real-time, sensor-based records will be used to constantly develop and maintain a future-forward plan. Of course, analytics and AI will be necessary corollaries to prevent dark data build up, but the information systems of the military already use these technologies.