Soldiers in training at Fort Jackson, S.C., stack sandbags

Soldiers in training at Fort Jackson, S.C., stack sandbags to be used throughout the hurricane season on Sept. 5, 2019. The Army recently introduced a new directive to prepare the service's installations against the growing threat of climate change. 

WASHINGTON – The Army faces a growing menace – one that has no military forces but threatens U.S. bases across the country.

From the California wildfires to the hurricanes that pound the southern coast year after year, climate change has had an impact on operations and installations so great that the Army has identified the phenomenon as a national security threat.

To encourage preparation for natural disasters resulting from climate change, the Army published a new directive (AD-2020-08) last week that requires planners and managers to establish resilience measures to safeguard valuable assets and minimize readiness impacts.

Stephen Dornbos, science and technology policy fellow in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Installations, Energy and Environment, said the new document will provide Army installations with uniform instruction to help them build resilience to natural hazards.

Hazardous weather includes flooding, drought, desertification, rising sea levels, extreme heat and thawing permafrost.

“Climate change has already had a big impact on Army installation infrastructure and threatens to degrade mission readiness. I think it’s going to continue to have an increasingly large impact going forward,” said Dornbos, who served as professor of geosciences at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee for 15 years.

“There are a lot of concerns about wildfires in California and the energy supply being threatened,” he further noted. “There are adaptation strategies that installations could use to better prepare themselves.”

Congress has required military posts to account for climate threats in infrastructure planning and design. Under the Army directive, installation commanders must develop emergency plans for extreme weather events as well as include climate change projection analysis tool results in infrastructure plans, policies and procedures.

“This practice will enhance installation readiness and safety because it informs the master planning process and facility design requirements,” said Alex A. Beehler, assistant secretary of the Army for IE&E. “In the event of a climate-related event, our installations will be better prepared to provide the critical capabilities essential to the Army’s ability to deploy, fight and win our nation’s wars.”

The instruction also will help commanders protect Soldiers and their families from health and safety impacts such as heat-related illnesses, Dornbos said. A web-based Army Climate Assessment Tool developed by the Army Corps of Engineers will give installations the ability to assess exposure to weather-related threats and project future climate implications.

The Army Climate Resistance Handbook, published last month, also will provide installation managers with a quick reference on climate and extreme weather resilience measures.

Further, the directive will have commanders tailor climate resilience measures to local threats, as well as track power and water levels. The Army’s Deputy Chief of Staff, G-9, will assist ASA (IE&E) in the evaluation and execution of the directive and in strategic direction. The Army Climate Assessment Tool will be updated with new data and climate projections over the coming years, according to Dornbos.

As Army installations increasingly become targets, climate change could make posts more vulnerable to adversary attacks and threaten the service’s ability to project power, he also noted.

“The motivation is to protect critical assets and ensure installation mission readiness in the face of climate and extreme weather threats,” he said.

The effort behind the directive began about a year ago because hazardous weather increasingly inflicted damage on installations. “There is a need to start engineering for the future,” Dornbos said. “Designing based on historical conditions is insufficient to engineer buildings that will be serving the Army in another 20 or 30 years when we will have increasingly damaging weather events. So, I think the timing of this is right.”

Army posts have faced a variety of natural disasters in recent years. In September 2018, Hurricane Florence caused catastrophic flooding near the Army’s most populous post, Fort Bragg, N.C. High water damaged Soldiers’ homes in nearby Fayetteville, and some areas of the installation had to be sandbagged to prevent serious damage.

In 2011, wildfires burned more than 11,000 acres at Fort Hood, Texas. It happened again in 2018 when flames torched some of its training grounds and necessitated costly adjustments or cancellations of field maneuvers and live-gunnery exercises. The Army’s three Alaska posts also face the dangers of thawing permafrost destroying the surface integrity of the ground, potentially destabilizing infrastructure and making accessing and utilizing training areas difficult.