Navigating In A Changing Climate

Is climate change a national security issue? Rear Adm. David Titley, a meteorologist and Navy oceanographer, discusses how melting glaciers, changing sea ice and rising sea levels might affect Navy operations in the Arctic and around the world — and how the Navy is preparing.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

We've talked a lot about climate change on this show and how it may be affecting our environment, weather patterns, animal species, plants, all kinds of stuff. But we haven't talked much about how climate change impacts national security, yeah.

But the military has been talking about it, specifically the Navy. The Navy admiralty is worried about global warming, and if you think about it, it makes perfect sense, given what is happening in the Arctic, where lots of once-frozen water is now open sea in the summertime.

Joining me now to explain the connection is Rear Admiral David Titley. He is the oceanographer of the Navy, and he is also director of the Navy's Task Force Climate Change. He joins us from Washington, D.C. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Rear Admiral DAVID TITLEY (U.S. Navy): Thank you, Ira. It's great to be here.

FLATOW: I'm interested in reading your biography and notes about you that you confess to at one time being a global warming skeptic.

Rear Adm. TITLEY: Yes.

FLATOW: What changed your mind?

Rear Adm. TITLEY: What really changed my mind was when you go and look at all the evidence, I think to - at least to me - I think it really showed that the climate was changing.

I was, as you might know, I was trained as a meteorologist, and you see, of course, the day-to-day and sometimes even hour-by-hour changes and variations. I watched the computer models in the '70s and the '80s, and, you know, as we all do - you know, how many times have all shoveled six inches of partly cloudy off of our driveway?

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Rear Adm. TITLEY: So how, you know, if that was the accuracy, how well could we really say what was going on? But as I learned more about the topic, you see that really the climate is controlled not so much by what the day-to-day weather started as but by what are the larger things doing - what is the ocean doing? What is the sun doing? And what's our atmosphere doing?

So that really was able to show me. And the other part that maybe even is more important was just taking a look at all the different changes. One of my first jobs in the Navy, I was a navigator, and this is well before we had the global positioning system. So I may be one of the few guys who actually still know how to use a sextant and all that sort of thing.

And we are able to - when you navigate a ship, you don't just use one source of information. You use everything you can. And I kind of look at the climate the same way. So we look at the changes in the Arctic. We look at the melting of the glaciers.

We look at what's going on with the ice fields, especially in Greenland but also West Antarctica, look at the changes of the temperature in the ocean, the changes of the ocean acidity, and all of that observations, all of that evidence, if you will, together, along with my now better understanding of what is driving the climate, has sort of taken me from the, hey, I'm not sure there's really anything here, to there really is, there really is some changes going on. And to make sure that our Navy is ready in the 21st century, we have to look at these changes just as we look at changes in the political spheres and the economic spheres and the demographic concepts.

FLATOW: You say in a talk that you foresee the ocean level rising three to six feet in the 21st century. And that is a pretty high number, far above what the IPCC estimates. Do you have a plan for a worst-case scenario like that? And why is your number a little bit higher, or much higher?

Rear Adm. TITLEY: Well, sure. Let's talk about the number first. I testified to the Congress back in November that, you know, we in the Navy believe that the sea-level rise in the 21st century is most probably going to be about a meter, so let's say a little over three feet.

But what I told the Congress is if I'm wrong, I'm probably wrong on the low side. And the reason for that - and the IPCC, while they didn't have those kind of numbers, they knew there was something missing when you go read the full report.

And the observations and the science since the IPCC report was released is showing us that the changes going on, especially on the Greenland ice field, but also in the Antarctic ice field, are much more rapid than have previously been seen.

And you may have had, on previous shows, some of the - either the glaciologists or the oceanographers, but talking about how the warmer water is getting up into those fjords in Greenland, melting the bottoms of these glaciers.

And the best example I can think of is, is if you think of, like, a medieval cathedral with flying buttresses, and those buttresses hold up the walls, well, if you start taking away those buttresses, or start melting the bottom of the glacier that was grounded in the fjord, all of a sudden the ice starts falling a whole lot more faster than it had before.

We're still at just the very beginnings of understanding this. I think the science, it's - you know, if I was 30 years younger, this would be a wonderful thing to go get a Ph.D. in. But from a Navy perspective, a practical perspective, I think we're going to have to account for at least a meter of sea-level rise in the 21st century.

FLATOW: Well, how do you go to a Congress whose entering freshmen on the House side, many of them don't believe in global warming and may say to you we don't want our tax, military money spent on this silly thing?

Rear Adm. TITLEY: Well, I think right now, and although that sounds, it's like - you know, can get people's attention, right now the observations show that the sea-level today is rising somewhere between three and three and a half millimeters per year.

And it turns out - and I'll bet many of your audience knows that sea-level rise, somewhat like politics, is in fact - with apologies to Tip O'Neill - is all local, because you have to understand not only what the global sea-level rise is, which in itself is a huge challenge, but then there are local effects, and then even if the land is going up and down makes a big difference.

So our secretary of defense, when he signed out the Quadrennial Defense Review, which is an overarching strategic document for our Department of Defense, has directed his staff, specifically an office called the Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program, to do some very detailed studies of the impact of sea-level rise on some of our Department of Defense installations, and including places the Navy is very interested in, like Coronado, near San Diego, out in California; Camp LeJeune, where we have a major Marine base; and the Norfolk, Virginia area.

And that - those studies will probably take about two years or so. And I've been asked before, it's like, well, geez, can we wait two years? And I said: Well, two years is about seven millimeters of sea-level rise. I think we can wait seven millimeters to try to really understand and get the right answers so that while we do not - absolutely cannot be caught sort of behind - behind the changes, we also do not want to spend money too soon or what we would call ahead of need.

So we have time to get the answer. Now is the time to start acknowledging that we need to look at these studies, and the secretary of defense has directed those studies to happen.

FLATOW: And what would - if the studies verify what you're saying, and I don't think there's any reason to doubt that what you're saying about sea-level rise is real, what actions, what are the first actions that the Navy would take to combat the sea-level rise?

Rear Adm. TITLEY: I think, Ira, that each place is likely to be different.

FLATOW: Give me an example of - pick a place. Tell me what - let's say San Diego.

Rear Adm. TITLEY: Okay. For San Diego, I think again, and the studies will need to be done. But do you build slightly increased levees? Do you take a look at that? Do you take a look at raising some of the infrastructure? Do you - let's say if some of the hotel services underneath the pier, and as the water slowly comes up, do you need to, say, redesign those piers so that the hotel services would not flood, let's say, on a storm tide?

So these are all things that our engineers in our naval facilities command, in our installations command, are starting to think about today. And again, while these numbers are very, very significant, we do have time. We have time to get this right.

FLATOW: All right, 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to Andy(ph) in Oklahoma. Hi, Andy.

ANDY (Caller): Hi, how are you doing today?

FLATOW: Hi there.

Rear Adm. TITLEY: Great.

ANDY: Great. Thanks for taking my call. Here in Oklahoma, we have a U.S. senator, Jim Inhofe, who seems to think that there's a lot of demagoguery and that global climate change is a hoax.

What - and if this isn't rehashing too much, but two questions. One is: What are the maybe top three or top five pieces of evidence that converted you as a meteorologist? And secondly: Do you in the Navy attribute any of the global climate change to human behavior, or are you all kind of staying out of that fray?

Rear Adm. TITLEY: Okay, well, thanks very much for the question. First, the types of evidence that at least I've looked at, and I've talked with our senior Navy leadership, is really the Arctic, is I think sort of a harbinger of the of some of the largest examples of climate change.

We have seen not only the extent of the ice in the summertime, or September, come down dramatically, but even more so the total amount of ice or how much thick ice and thin ice is up in the Arctic.

And we're seeing, really before our eyes, a very different system now in which - just 10 or 15 years ago, there was what people or scientists call multiyear ice, really thick ice last for years and years. It's probably five, 10, 15 or more feet thick. Almost all of that ice is now gone, maybe only 15, 20 percent - at the most - of the Arctic has that kind of very thick ice.

And now, the predominant kind of ice in the Arctic is single-year ice. So it melts in the summer, comes back in the winter, melts in the summer again. That's a very, very different regime.

And I kind of like watching ice because, I mean, ice doesn't vote. Ice doesn't contribute to any political party. It doesn't caucus. It just melts. And the ice kind of tells a story. So there's just one piece of evidence, but as I mentioned before, I look at many pieces.

As to the causes of climate change, again, when you look at the physics, you know, about the only things you can really change is you can change the sun and how much energy's coming in. NASA's done a pretty good job of measuring that, and it shows that pretty much within a couple of tenths of 1 percent the energy from the sun over the last 50 years has been pretty constant. Or you can change the amount of greenhouse gases. You can change the aerosols. We understand, like, how many volcanoes have been up(ph).

So when you put all this together, it looks like the greenhouse gases have a significant impact. The details, of course, get very, very complicated. It's not for the Navy to say what the policies are going to be or what they should be. But, again, I'm interested in making sure our Navy and our chief of naval operations wants to keep our Navy ready for this coming century. So we need to understand these changes to the best we can and adapt to them.

FLATOW: Let's go to Yonika(ph) in central Washington.

YONIKA (Caller): Yeah, Ira. Your program is my favorite program, because you deal more with global warming than anybody else on NPR, and I love you. I also respect the admiral, and I thank him for testifying before Congress. But I'd like to disagree with him on one point. What's your name again? Can I address you directly?

FLATOW: Sure.

Rear Adm. TITLEY: Admiral Titley.

YONIKA: What?

Rear Adm. TITLEY: Admiral Titley.

YONIKA: Yes. Admiral Titley.

Rear Adm. TITLEY: Yes, Ma'am.

YONIKA: I disagree with you on one point, and this is something that I feel on Ira's show week after week. He interviews scientists, who - like myself and all my friends and everybody I know - who know that global warming is real, who can see the floods, the fires, the droughts, the famines.

And you probably know - I mean, you should know that scarcity causes war and that one of the effects of global warming will be increased warfare. So I disagree with you when you said, well, let's wait a few years and study it more, because what's a few millimeters? Well, you probably know that global warming has a cascading effect that each event - global event (unintelligible)...

FLATOW: Yonika, I have to ask...

YONIKA: ...it doubles. Let me finish, okay?

FLATOW: Well, let just tell everybody that this is SCIENCE FRIDAY...

YONIKA: Okay.

FLATOW: ...from NPR.

YONIKA: Okay. Can I go on?

FLATOW: But quickly, because we're running out of time.

YONIKA: Okay. Okay. My feeling is every scientist that you've had on has talked about more and more study. My feeling is that if every scientist who is prepared to study global warming instead studied alternative energy and conservation and what to do about it, that we would be much farther ahead, because scientific understanding never ends.

FLATOW: All right. Let me just get a reaction from the admiral.

Rear Adm. TITLEY: Sure. Just very quickly, Ira. One, thank you for the comment.

Regarding the sea level rise, we think, actually, it is appropriate. And again, for the next two years, we see sea level rise, say, six or seven millimeters. I cannot ask my boss, the chief of naval operations, to go to the Congress to spend a lot of money for a seven-millimeter sea-level rise.

Your caller is absolutely right that some of the potential consequences of climate change can be instability because it - because climate change can exacerbate already political instabilities. And the Quadrennial Defense Review did a very nice job of talking about that.

I'll give you a couple of - just one example of what we are doing. We are working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other federal agencies to fundamentally retool our ocean and atmosphere and ice prediction systems to make them, frankly, more relevant to sort of the human scale, not just global scale, but the human scale and human times - so seasonal, decadal times of times, the kinds of times that families, businesses, industry, government, military actually make budgetary decisions on. And we need to do that to, frankly, have credibility.

As I'm sure your audience knows, while the large-scale effects of climate change are quite easily understood, when you come down to regional and specific effects that you're actually going to budget for and mitigate against, the science is much less certain.

While we're not going to have ourselves parallel - paralyzed by analysis, we do need to invest in the right amounts of understanding before we spend large amounts of our taxpayers' money.

FLATOW: And you agree it's going to take a long time to implement any of these changes.

Rear Adm. TITLEY: The changes are not fast in almost any large organization. But I think it's very encouraging that our senior leadership - our president, our secretary of defense, our chief of naval operations, secretary of the Navy - have been very consistent that this is one of the topics - not the only topic, by any means, but one of the topics that deserves serious, sustained attention.

FLATOW: All right, admiral. Thank you for taking time to be with us and voice those opinions.

Rear Adm. TITLEY: And thank you very much, Ira.

FLATOW: And good luck to you.

Rear Adm. TITLEY: Can I just mention...

FLATOW: Sure.

Rear Adm. TITLEY: ...if anybody is still interested or is interested on what our Navy is doing, they can look us up on Facebook at Navy Task Force on Climate Change.

FLATOW: There you go.

Rear Adm. TITLEY: Thank you.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Have a good weekend.

Rear Adm. TITLEY: Bye-bye.

FLATOW: Rear Admiral David Titley is the oceanographer of the Navy. Did you ever think we'd have the oceanographer of the Navy on? And he's also director of the Navy's Task Force on Climate Change.

We're going to take a break, and when we come back, we're going to move from the climate to physics. Brian Greene is back with us. He'll be back here to talk about multiverses, different universes and things, kind of interesting stuff. I know you always like to talk about that.

Stay with us. Our number: 1-800-989-8255. You can tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. Go to our website. And we'll have a surprise video up there for you, just about now. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.

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FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR.

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