Climate change means the U.S. Navy needs to prepare to respond to a wave of natural disasters. That was the warning of a National Research Council report in 2011, which foresaw global warming taxing the Navy's ability to help.

That warning sounds prescient in light of Typhoon Haiyan's devastation of The Philippines, which saw the Navy dispatch the carrier USS George Washington and the hospital ship USNS Mercy to assist survivors.

The scientist who co-chaired that committee says the Navy has the capacity to handle humanitarian relief needs, but only at present.

“Over the course of the next 30 to 40 years, future force structure requirements will need to be examined and the unique capability of USN hospital ships will become more important," Antonio Busalacchi, director of the Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center at the University of Maryland, told War is Boring. “Thus it will also be important to explore a range of plans to retain this medical relief capability."

The report, entitled “National Security Implications of Climate Change for U.S. Naval Forces,” notes that climate projections “suggest damaging impacts in developing and developed nations that may be destabilizing in many parts of the world.” It goes on to add:

These projections would affect U.S. national security and stress naval resources. In particular, naval forces will likely be required to carry out more frequent humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HA/DR)-related missions.
At the same time, U.S. naval forces would be expected to execute their ongoing national security military missions and to position themselves for supporting missions in destabilized regions around the globe. It is also expected that the demand for U.S. Naval Construction Force and Marine Expeditionary Unit capabilities will increase in proportion to the operational tempo of U.S.-sponsored international HA/DR missions.

In other words, on top of declining defense budgets and a growing Chinese naval threat, the Navy can look forward to a future of scurrying from one disaster zone to another.

One problem is the Navy's two aging hospital ships. The Mercy and Comfort were converted from supertankers into medical vessels in the 1980s, making them 30 years old and ripe for retirement by conservative measures. They also steam at a rather sedate 17 knots, about half the speed of a carrier like the George Washington.

The National Resource Council report urged the Navy to consider adopting the new Mobile Landing Platform ship as a floating hospital to replace the two existing vessels. The study also suggested the possibility of leasing commercial vessels and crews.

USNS Mercy. Navy photo

The study by the National Research Council, which is part of the National Academy of Sciences, also paints a grim future of rising sea levels that could directly threaten the Navy itself. If sea levels go up just 0.8 meters on average, many Navy and Marine installations could be flooded. There are 56 installations worth $100 billion at risk, Busalacchi says.

Melting Arctic icecaps also mean greater naval access and competition for natural resources in the polar region. The biggest strategic challenge of climate change is “the prospect of a navigable, open Arctic Ocean in summertime as early as year 2030,” Busalacchi says. “The Arctic will become a region of cooperation, competition and conflict—albeit low conflict—as many nations race to access and exploit the natural resources in the region.”

“This will require the Coast Guard to have icebreaker assets in the region,” he adds. “The USN will need to increase its training and experience in what still represents a cold harsh environment—experience that has been lost since the end of the Cold War."

Busalacchi says the biggest change since the NRC report was issued in 2011 has been Superstorm Sandy and Typhoon Haiyan, “which serve to reinforce both the vulnerability of infrastructure by an extreme storm on top of historically high sea levels, and the HA/DR need. They are consistent with what we foreshadowed in the report.”

Of course, there are those who will claim that climate change is a fantasy concocted by tree-huggers rather than honest scientists. In the end, there is only way to find out. But if the scientists are correct and climate change is upon us, the Navy will be doing a lot of steaming from disaster zone to disaster zone—perhaps more than we can afford to pay for.

You can follow Michael Peck on Twitter at @Mipeck1 or on Facebook. Sign up for a daily War is Boring email update here. Subscribe to WIB’s RSS feed here and follow the main page here.