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California military bases report damage from extreme climate, weather events

Soldiers assigned to the 120th Combined Arms Battalion, 30th Heavy Brigade Combat Team, participate in desert training at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., in 2009.

The Department of Defense has been proceeding with climate change research and preparing for its possible effects, despite ongoing political battles over the issue.

On Friday, the Pentagon submitted a study to Congress assessing how military bases have felt the effects of extreme weather events. 

Facilities in California listed problems with drought, wildfires, wind, and floods in the survey, which concluded in 2015.   

“We were trying to get an assessment of where our vulnerabilities were to climate change,” said John Conger, a former Pentagon official who was in charge of the office conducting the study. He’s now a senior policy advisor with the Center for Climate Security, which obtained a copy of the unclassified report from sources on the Hill. 

The DoD contacted over 3,500 sites. About half mentioned problems that ranged from roads and runways being flooded out to soldiers being forced to restrict training in extreme heat. 782 facilities listed trouble with drought, the most common climate and weather-related challenge.

“You don’t use live fire when you’re in the middle of a drought because you’re more likely to start wildfires,” Conger said. “So it undermines your ability to do your full training routine.”

Conger also pointed to the damage bases reported from high winds. 763 installations cited damage due to wind events.

“It was higher than I anticipated. It caused power outages, which affects the operations of the base,” he said. 

As a matter of policy, the Pentagon prepares for the worst.

“The Department of Defense (DoD) has significant experience in planning for and managing risk and uncertainty,” the report said. “The effects of climate and extreme weather represent additional risks to incorporate into the Department’s various planning and risk management processes.”

The report continued, “if extreme weather makes our critical facilities unusable or necessitate costly or manpower-intensive work-arounds, that is an unacceptable impact.”

The report highlighted a massive 2013 flash flood in the Mojave Desert that swamped Fort Irwin, home of the Army’s National Training Center.

Kenneth Berg, an engineer technician for the Director of Public Works at the base, called the August rains a “100-year storm.”

Berg said there was $160 million worth of damage to Fort Irwin and an additional $60-75 million to “The Box,” the nickname for the 1,200 square miles of desert used as a training area for thousands of service members from all branches every year.

Over 155 buildings were damaged by water, mud, and gravel moved by the flood. Three were total losses.

“It was 3 ¼ inches of rain in less than 30 or 40 minutes,” said Berg. “It’s a dry climate. We normally don’t get that much rain.”

Fort Irwin engineers have been working to head off damage from future storms, including repairing existing flood channels and retention areas.

“We’re trying to get to where we can mitigate a 100-year storm,” Berg said. “It’s not a guarantee. But it’s a matter of what we can do to move the water and debris away from government property.”

Conger stressed the research the Pentagon turned over to Congress doesn’t address a direct link between climate change and extreme weather events. Rather, the survey’s focus was to assess the impact of climate on personnel, equipment, property, and operations. 

“It does not ask the staff at an installation to make a deduction about science and climate. It’s simply asking what they’ve seen,” Conger said. “It’s not asking about climate change, it’s asking about climate effects.”

He continued: “But if you expect climate change to occur, and you look at the bases that are currently encountering problems and impacts based on climate, then those are the places that very well may need more study and more mitigation.”

The Pentagon described the survey as an initial indicator of whether a more in-depth assessment of the effects of climate change is warranted.

Congress has already asked for more information. In last year’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the annual plan for military spending, lawmakers included a request for a study to determine the 10 installations most vulnerable to the effects of climate change for each branch of the military. 

That report is due in late 2018.