Climate Change and National Security: Implications for Space Systems

The effects of climate change constitute an unprecedented threat to global security and military readiness. What, if anything, can the space community do to prepare?

Climate Globe

With an albedo of 80 percent or more, snow-covered terrain reflects most incoming solar radiation back into space. If the cover melts, the albedo drops to less than 30 percent, allowing the ground to absorb more solar radiation, heating the surface and lower atmosphere. Courtesy of NASA.

James A. Vedda

The United States has spent the last several decades configuring its security establishment to confront ideological foes with large standing armies and modern tools of war. In the future, the most dangerous challenges may well come from the forces of nature, as global climate change brings about extreme weather conditions, changes in global resource distribution, mass migrations of disrupted peoples, and insurgencies fueled in part by the unmet needs of unstable societies. All of this is set to take place at a time when Earth is more densely populated and has a greater capacity for generating human casualties, property damage, and environmental harm than in previous centuries.

Efforts to adapt the security system to this new threat environment must recognize that climate change threats are different from those usually associated with military confrontation, and must be viewed in a longer time frame. Among the variables to be considered are temperature changes, both average and extreme; increasing or decreasing precipitation; frequency and severity of storms; and sea level rise, which has multiple consequences, including encroachment on land, inundation of fresh water supplies, and amplification of storm surge effects.

GEODSS facility at Diego Garcia

The Ground-Based Electro-Optical Deep Space Surveillance System (GEODSS) facility at Diego Garcia. The average height of the atoll is only about one meter above sea level. Courtesy of US Air Force.

The expected effects of climate change have consequences that can include crop failures, flooding, loss of fresh water supplies, and the spread of diseases, as well as loss of productivity due to property damage and transportation disruptions. Worldwide, such crises can contribute to political instability, especially within weak or failed states, and to international conflict stemming from resource scarcity and cross-border human migration. Even if direct effects on the U.S. homeland are manageable, the resulting global repercussions will be detrimental to U.S. interests and are likely to require substantial humanitarian and military intervention. At the same time, U.S. forces around the world will need to contend with changing environmental conditions affecting their facilities and areas of responsibility.

Numerous government and think-tank reports have identified threats and advocated urgent attention. These have focused on the likelihood that climate change will be a threat multiplier, exacerbating problems in parts of the world already suffering from political and economic instability. Although these studies have considered operational problems and possible solutions for U.S. forces overseas—primarily related to logistical requirements such as fuel supplies—they have not directly addressed threats to space operations. Nonetheless, these studies have direct implications for the way space systems are conceived, deployed, and maintained.

Implications for Space Systems

Satellites fly far above terrestrial weather, which makes them excellent observers but doesn’t make them immune to climate concerns. They need support from the ground-launch sites to provide them with access to space, and facilities around the world to monitor and control them and put their capabilities to use. Given these conditions, there are two major roles for the space community in addressing climate change. The first is identification of direct threats to the ability to employ space assets, leading to mitigation and adaptation efforts. The second is development of space systems for science and applications that contribute to prevention, mitigation, and adaptation, thereby helping to minimize destabilizing effects.

Threats to Space Assets


Diego Garcia map

Even a small rise in sea level would affect islands such as Diego Garcia, which would potentially become more prone to damage from severe storm surges. Courtesy of NASA.

An obvious example of a potential threat to space systems is sea level rise and its possible effects on coastal areas that are home to space support facilities. Current estimates project a sea level rise of 0.5 to 1.2 meters by 2100, with the possibility of several more meters beyond that time. The amount predicted for this century may not seem like much, but a 1-meter rise would put 640 square kilometers of U.S. territory under water and 2223 square kilometers worldwide, according to the most recent assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This is not going to cause launchpads to sink below the waves any time soon, but there are other detrimental effects to be considered. The rate of coastal erosion will accelerate, and storm surges will be more damaging as they become more frequent and more severe. Under these circumstances, schedule disruptions would become more likely and may require more costly and time-consuming repairs.

Sites around the world may have to deal with more than disrupted schedules and higher operating costs. As a threat multiplier for political and social instability or a motivation for mass migration, climate change could degrade security at overseas ground stations, or even force them to close.

Kwajalein Atoll

The Kwajalein atoll, shown here using nighttime satellite imaging, has a long history of serving U.S. military needs. The atoll is one of many considered threatened by the effects of climate change. Courtesy of NASA.

A climate threat assessment of space facilities would need to employ a multifaceted approach that would encompass a diverse array of possible threats from the forces of nature and the failure of technologies and institutions. The assessment should not be limited to obvious targets like coastal launchpads and their associated support facilities. Other vital and vulnerable components of the space enterprise include locations that perform functions such as the design, development, and manufacture of space systems; tracking, telemetry, and control of spacecraft during launch and operation; recovery operations for returning spacecraft; and space situational awareness.

Many facilities that perform these functions are not on U.S. territory, and some are in areas highly vulnerable to climate change effects. For example, the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean is a critical logistics hub for U.S. and British forces in the Middle East. It also hosts a Ground-Based Electro-Optical Deep Space Surveillance (GEODSS) facility, the only one in that part of the world, which contributes to the U.S. Space Surveillance Network. The Air Force Satellite Control Network also uses equipment on Diego Garcia to control the GPS constellation.

Diego Garcia is threatened by the effects of climate change because its average height above sea level is just over one meter. Another site that may be threatened is the Kwajalein atoll in the Pacific Ocean, where a U.S. Army facility conducts near-Earth and deep space surveillance, as well as missile test functions, on land that has a maximum elevation of eight meters above sea level.

NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory

NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory was lost in a launch failure in 2009. A new version is scheduled for launch in 2013. Courtesy of NASA/JPL.

The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2008 included an amendment to Title 10 of the U.S. Code requiring consideration of the effects of climate change on defense facilities, capabilities, and missions. The Obama administration has begun to address climate change effects in national security planning documents and now must follow through with action plans for all sectors of the national security community. This would include integration of climate change into the operational planning of regional combatant commands. Users of space services should be aware of the short- and long-term threats to those services so they can make contingency plans. The planning effort should prioritize “no-regrets” policies and solutions—improved practices and technologies that yield benefits in reliability, capacity, and cost even in the absence of disruptions caused by climate change. Examples include protection of coastal areas, which are subjected to severe storms and flooding even in the absence of climate change, and cost-effective military-to-military environmental security initiatives like those that already have yielded a variety of benefits in the Persian Gulf and Central Asia. Some adaptive actions will save money, others will have significant costs—but ultimately, these costs will be less than the costs imposed by climate change damages that could be averted.

Environmental Sensing

For prevention and mitigation efforts, space systems will continue performing the functions they have been doing for many years: identifying and monitoring weather and climate changes, attempting to determine the extent and rate of specific changes, and providing data to improve computer models. These are important functions—scientists would know far less about weather and climate change today in the absence of space systems, possibly missing key variations, patterns, and the clues to their causes. Fortunately, highly capable U.S. space systems are complemented by strong and growing programs in Europe and Asia, as well as Canada and Brazil, facilitated by organizational mechanisms for applying the data to global research efforts.

A prime example of growing international activity is the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) program, led by the European Commission and the European Space Agency (ESA). The 10-year program, initiated in 2008, aims to launch 15 electro-optical and radar satellites to study the land, oceans, and atmosphere for both scientific investigations and ongoing operations.

In the medium to long term, space systems can play a role in mitigating climate change, but this will be more challenging due to technical, institutional, and political hurdles. Initially, this will be done by systems much like those in operation today. For example, electro-optical and thermal sensors could be used to help enforce carbon caps or other regulatory restrictions. This has already started to a limited extent. Japan’s Ibuki satellite, launched in January 2009, and the U.S. Orbiting Carbon Observatory 2, scheduled for launch in 2013, are designed to look for carbon dioxide sources and sinks, taking a first step toward treaty monitoring applications. Satellite systems eventually could become a tool for monitoring and enforcing domestic and international laws and agreements relevant to a variety of environmental concerns; however, the space community is still a long way from reaching this point. Long-term continuity is required in monitoring an array of key climate variables, and research satellites are not designed to provide this. Commitments to operational satellite systems are necessary, analogous to the nation’s commitments to operational early warning, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems. Like the national security community, the climate research and environmental monitoring communities need to achieve what their defense counterparts have termed “persistent surveillance.”

Satellite systems can also play a role in the tracking and exploitation of shifting global resources. For example, Arctic ice is thinning, and the extent of ice coverage is shrinking. If current rates continue, by midcentury the Arctic Ocean may be ice-free in the summer months. This will increase shipping traffic and exploration for resources, especially oil and natural gas. Inevitably, demand will increase for security patrols—and for the space systems to support them—to provide rescue services and guard against conflicting resource claims by Arctic nations. Those nations and NATO are already engaging in dialogues aimed at preventing such conflict. This attention comes none too soon, as the first potentially exploitable oil discovery off the coast of Greenland was announced in September 2010 by a Scottish energy company. (see sidebar, Multinational Monitoring).


Integrating the Climate Change Threat

Maximum extent of Arctic Sea ice in 2011

The maximum extent of arctic sea ice in 2011 was below the median for the two decades from 1979 through 2000. By mid century, the Arctic Ocean may be ice-free in the summer months, enabling commercial traffic and increasing the demand for space-system support. Courtesy of National Snow and Ice Data Center.

National security agencies routinely plan for a wide range of contingencies, including worst-case scenarios. National policy recognizes that space capabilities are a vital national interest and that space-based communications and navigation are part of the nation’s critical infrastructure. Therefore, in facing environmental and climate threats capable of causing damage and instability on a global scale, the nation should be preparing to safeguard its space system operations against these threats with the same determination used to defend terrestrial assets against attack.

Some analysts see a need for more comprehensive studies than those done so far. For example, the National Intelligence Council conducted an assessment in 2008 on the implications of climate change to help the intelligence community anticipate changes in the status of individual nations and regions of interest. In general, the assessment found insufficient resolution and specificity in climate change models, particularly those dealing with hydrological patterns and changes in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events. Similarly, a 2007 report published by the Center for Strategic & International Studies noted that “studies of potential sea level rise impacts have not been conducted for most parts of the globe, and those that have been typically examine only one aspect of sea level impacts, such as beach erosion or storm surge height” while ignoring other consequences such as inundation of fresh water supplies, damage to infrastructure and agriculture, and temporary or permanent population displacement. (see sidebar, The Climate Change Threat: How Does It Differ from Conventional Threats?).

Response to climate change is complicated by the fact that it does not simply produce a single consequence (e.g., a rise in average temperature) that prompts an easily defined response (e.g., increased use of air-conditioning). It is not limited to one or a few locations, all experiencing the same effects; rather, an array of effects will be felt worldwide to varying degrees. Incorporating such circumstances into strategic planning across many affected agencies is a formidable challenge, but delay could make the search for solutions more difficult over time. (see sidebar, A Call to Action).

Further Reading

J. Busby, “Climate Change and National Security: An Agenda for Action,” Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), Council Special Report No. 32 (Nov. 2007); (as of March 29, 2011).

K. Campbell et al., “The Age of Consequences: The Foreign Policy and National Security Implications of Global Climate Change,” Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) & Center for a New American Security (Nov. 2007); This report was substantially expanded and released as Climatic Cataclysm: The Foreign Policy and National Security Implications of Climate Change (Brookings Institution Press, Washington, DC, 2008).

T. Fingar, “National Intelligence Assessment on the National Security Implications of Global Climate Change to 2030,” testimony before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming (June 25, 2008); (as of March 24, 2001).

S. Magnuson, “Warming Planet, Heated Debate: Climate Change Fears Spill Over to the Defense Community,” National Defense, pp. 40–44 (Aug. 2008).

M. Mann and L. Kump, Dire Predictions: Understanding Global Warming (DK Publishing Inc., New York, 2008).

National Research Council, Division on Earth and Life Sciences, Abrupt Climate Change: Inevitable Surprises (National Academy Press, Washington, DC, 2002).

Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), “Space Technologies and Climate Change: Implications for Water Management, Marine Resources, and Maritime Transport” (Dec. 2008).

C. Pumphrey, (ed.), Global Climate Change National Security Implications (Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, Carlisle, PA, May 2008).

P. Schwartz and D. Randall, “An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its Implications for United States National Security” (Global Business Networks, Oct. 2003).

G. Sullivan et al., “National Security and the Threat of Climate Change” (The CNA Corporation, Apr. 2007).

U.S. Climate Change Science Program, “Weather and Climate Extremes in a Changing Climate—Regions of Focus: North America, Hawaii, Caribbean, and U.S. Pacific Islands” (Department of Commerce, NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center, June 2008).


Return to the Summer 2011 Table of Contents

Go to the sidebar: Multinational Monitoring

Go to the sidebar: The Climate Change Threat: How Does It Differ from Conventional Threats?

Go to the sidebar: A Call to Action