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U.S. Military's Climate-Adaptation Planning Needs Better Deadlines, GAO Says

Bloomberg BNA — The Defense Department has made strides in assessing the impact of rising sea level, declines in sea ice, and other climate-related impacts on its more than 7,500 installations around the world but has yet to develop firm timetables for ensuring the work can prepare it for future adaptation efforts, the Government Accountability Office said in a June 30 report.

The DOD should set firm “milestones” for completing climate change vulnerability assessments of its installations and incorporate potential climate impacts in better prioritizing which military construction projects should get funding, the GAO said in the report, “Climate Change Adaptation: DOD Can Improve Infrastructure Planning and Processes to Better Account for Potential Impacts.”

In some cases, those impacts are already being felt at military installations, the GAO said. Increasing erosion from rising sea level has chipped away at some U.S. Air Force runways, affecting “overrun” runway areas used in emergencies to slow planes either taking off or landing.

One U.S. Army installation told GAO investigators that rising temperatures have already begun affecting certain training activities due to thawing permafrost.

“Officials stated that if temperatures continue to rise as projected, permafrost thawing could become more severe,” according to the report, which could “further impact DOD training and may impact military readiness because DOD could not easily find another location to replicate the training” currently conducted there.

Changes Seen at Nine Locations

At nine of 15 locations visited by the GAO, “officials stated that they had observed changes in precipitation patterns and associated potential impacts” from more severe weather scientists attribute to warming temperatures, including 43 straight days of rain at an installation in the Pacific in 2008 that triggered mud slides and flooding, which in turn damaged base infrastructure, including base housing, the report said.

GAO investigators selected locations in various regions, including the Southwest, the Southeast and Caribbean; Hawaii and the Pacific Islands; and Alaska and the Arctic.

The bases that were the focus of the report included the Edwards Air Force Base, California; Fort Wainwright, Alaska; Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii; and in Alaska, the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex and the 611th Civil Engineer Squadron remote radar sites.

President Barack Obama has launched several initiatives to assess impacts on climate on U.S. infrastructure, including a Quadrennial Energy Review the president called for in his June 2013 climate action plan.

Obama formally launched the QER in January, and the initial report, due in January 2015, will focus on climate and other related challenges to energy availability and infrastructure and review the “adequacy” of current executive and legislative actions.

Senate Democrats Requested Report

The report was requested by Senate Democrats, including Sen. Barbara Boxer (Calif.), who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, and Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Mark Begich (Alaska).

The Defense Department largely concurred with the report's recommendations for more concrete project plans that include timetables for conducting thorough climate assessments. The report said the DOD's “initial efforts have been reasonable responses to these challenges, given some continued uncertainty in climate science and competing departmental priorities” but that “it would benefit by taking actions to ensure that ongoing and future infrastructure projects are designed to be consistent” with the department's own sustainability goals.

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