Report shows need for improved military infrastructure amidst climate change

Climate change presents vulnerabilities for arctic and sub-arctic military installations.
Published: Jul. 21, 2023 at 4:32 PM AKDT
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - Recent assessments of military installation in the arctic and sub-arctic have revealed vulnerabilities in critical military infrastructure. The Dept. of Defense (DOD) intends to address the issue as climate change continues to present challenges for the strategic locations.

As climate change reshapes the arctic and sub-arctic regions, new challenges are presented for the DOD. This includes new pathways for attack on U.S. soil, but also infrastructure issues at existing military installations. This leaves the U.S. vulnerable to attacks or other issues that could weaken national security. These weakness are counteractive to the DOD’s Arctic Strategy.

As sea ice melts, “new shipping lanes and increasing access to natural resources during the summer months,” will make the arctic a more competitive region, according to the report. The increased competition, new shipping lanes and existing tensions all pose a risk for the region as “the arctic is a potential vector for an attack on the U.S. homeland, a region where Russia and China are operating more freely, and a strategic corridor for DOD forces between the Indo-Pacific and Europe,” said the DOD.

In an effort to combat those potential issues, the DOD developed directive 4715.21 titled “Climate Change Adaptation and Resilience.” This directive requires DOD installations in the arctic and sub-arctic to “integrate climate change considerations into DOD Component policy, guidance, plans, and operations,” as stated by the DOD.

To ensure the directive is being carried out, the DOD visited six installations in the region. Unfortunately, their visit discovered that leadership at those installations “did not conduct installation resilience assessments and planning required by DOD directive and public law.” According to the DOD, the lack of compliance is due to a lack of emphasis on installation climate resilience. Instead, they found that leadership had been focused on “existing weather and energy challenges.” The report said that the DOD also did not provide guidance for implementing resilience assessments and that leadership lacked resources to analyze or assess climate change.

Of the six installations that were visited, three are located in Alaska’s interior region. These locations were Eielson Air Force Base, Ft. Wainwright, and Ft. Greely.

Eielson AFB is the home of the 354th fighter wing, which operates not only the fifth generation, F-35A Lightning, the most advanced fighter in the U.S., but F-16s as well and other vital aircraft. At this installation a maintenance squadron production superintendent described challenges caused by “soil freezing and thawing beneath the infrastructure on the base.” Those climate related challenges have lead to damaged buildings and roadways. Similar difficulties with freezing and thawing soil have been experienced at Ft. Wainwright as well.

Ft. Wainwright also faces difficulties with wildfires however. “The Army Climate Resilience Handbook states that wildfires are expected to burn more intensely and over larger areas, driven in part by increases in evaporation and more frequent drought,” as stated in the report. Wildfires are an issue commonly faced at the interior army post, especially at firing ranges. Dry fuel, wind, and higher temperatures provide easy means of ignition for fires started by munitions. The dense Alaskan wilderness also makes it easy for flames to spread. “The USARAK operations officer stated the DOD pays approximately $1.5 million per year... for preventative fire suppression services on Fort Wainwright.” That prevention comes in the form of prescribed burns, clearing and other mitigation efforts. Despite mitigation efforts, the area on and surrounding Ft. Wainwright are still prone to fires. Some seasons are exceptionally bad. In 2019, “the DOD paid an additional $5.5 million for wildfire response.” a range operations manager also stated that the fires cause a significant loss of training time.”

At Ft. Greely, near Delta Junction, the transition between seasons has presented the biggest challenge. According to the directorate of public works stationed there, “Ft. Greely has historically experienced spring thaw flooding.” The break up floods come from a nearby creek that runs adjacent to the installation. This flooding has at times covered more than five acres and in some places is deeper than 20 feet. “Flooding has also been responsible for the erosion of portions of several roads on Fort Greely,” as written in the report.

In response to the challenges faced by installations in the arctic and sub-arctic, the DOD has recommended master planning requirements that major military installations will need to address in accordance with policy. They also recommended that various branch leadership “establish priorities, develop milestones, and identify planning and training resources.” Identifying climate risks, conducting assessment and determining vulnerabilities was also identified as a priority for the Air Force.

According to the report, the DOD working on construction projects at installations across the region. Collectively, the projects “represent billions of dollars in infrastructure investment,” that will support the directive and the mission of defense.