Sandia LabNews

Admiral's talk at Sandia Labs explores security implications of climate change


The US Navy views climate change as a challenge, intends to prepare for it, and would appreciate help from the national labs, Rear Adm. David Titley told an attentive Sandia audience in an unclassified lecture titled “Climate Change and National Security” on June 2 in the Bldg. 810 (CNSAC) auditorium.

The lecture, simulcast to Sandia/California, is the first of a group of lectures intended to explore the national security implications of climate change, says Rob Leland, director of Computation, Computers and Math (1400), whose center arranged the talk under the leadership of John Mitchiner (1430) through Div.8000 VP Rick Stulen’s Energy, Climate and Infrastructure Security SMU.

Titley, the Navy’s oceanographer and navigator, is senior policy adviser to the chief of naval operations for issues relating to national ocean policy and governance, as well as navigation policy and standards.

Mixing humor and environmental charts from the Applied Physics Lab at the University of Washington, Titley said the Navy was concerned that ocean levels would rise “a meter or two” over the next century, the result of the accelerating melting of the Greenland ice sheet and continued melting and thinning of Arctic ice.

“Why does the Navy care about this?” he asked. “We tend to build our bases at sea level. It’s a Navy thing,” he said straightfaced.

Faced with a situation that might require building dykes around its bases, the Navy reacts, he said. Navy oceanography cannot be “just scientifically cool,” it must have a practical outcome that transforms information into decisions. Otherwise, Titley said, imitating an impatient interrogator, “Tell me again why you’re here?”

He said the problems the Navy anticipates over the next century, after engaging nearly 400 people from more than 120 organizations to help gather data, include:

  • environmentally forced or opportunistic changes in shipping routes,
  • political problems as islands disappear beneath rising seas or ports become lower than sea level,
  • increased economic activity in areas currently off-limits because ice at present blocks maritime access, and
  • possible negative effects on plankton when the salinity of the ocean changes.

“Where will one billion people who get their protein from the ocean get it when the tiny living beings that form the bottom of their food chain disappear?” he asked. There was also, he said, “the human dimension that I’m not sure the policy folk always think about: humans want to stay where they are,” regardless of the alteration of the environment about them.

He predicted partnership opportunities and new energy security initiatives.

So, he said, he was interested in partnering with the national labs to develop better operational decision-making capabilities with respect to climate change.

Terry Michalske, who leads Sandia’s Energy and Security Systems Center 6300, chatted with Titley at some length after the talk. Says Terry, “[Titley] had no doubt that climate change was happening. He was interested in our risk-and-consequence approach that we undertake at places like NISAC [National Infrastructure Simulation and Analysis Center].  We’re not worrying about the reasons why the climate is changing, but we accept data that shows it is. So, we need to better understand that change and its impact on society as it may affect us in the immediate future.

 “I think there’s a piece here that fits Sandia well,” he says, ”with our links to the intelligence community, our studies of economic trends, and our technical capabilities all applied together to a massive global event. I think Titley was very encouraged by many of the capabilities he learned about at talks while here at Sandia.”

Says Rob, “While there are many opinions on the large subject of climate change, we’re focused here on the technical and social issues that pertain to national security. The goal is to inform the internal dialogue and seed an understanding more broadly of Sandia’s potential contributions.”

Titley came away with a better knowledge of Sandia’s capabilities, says Rob.  “When we briefed him on our risk framework and probabilistic impact approach, he said, ‘This is the best stuff I’ve seen on the subject.’ I believe his intent is to build a broad coalition across the government sector to address climate change. He’s got high-level military support for that, and we’d like to position Sandia to make a central contribution.”