Implications of Climate Change on US Navy Operations

The US Navy is acutely affected by global climate change and is working to position itself to effectively ensure it can achieve its mission given the changing environmental landscape.


Based on its mission and positioning, the United States Navy is acutely affected by global climate change.  In addition to the operational and infrastructure challenges, the Navy is also struggling to work through the current political framework to position itself for the future.

Challenges Presented by Climate Change

The Navy defines the major challenges that result from global climate change on its operations are the changing arctic landscape and potential sea level rise.1

Because of global climate change, the arctic sea and ice shelf are changing faster than any other location.  Because of the existing ice mass, current Naval operation in the arctic region is primarily limited to nuclear submarines.  However, Navy projections of the size of the summer ice mass (when the ice mass is the smallest) indicate that both the transpolar sea route and the northwest passage (both currently non-navigable year-round) could be navigable by the summer of 2020.  In addition, the existing arctic sea routes (the Bering Strait and the Northern Sea Route) will become navigable for a longer portion of the year.  The implications of this new access to the arctic sea are unknown at this point, but the Navy needs to be ready for increased cargo shipments as well as potentially increased presence by other countries looking to stake a claim to abundant arctic resources.2

As the arctic ice mass continues to melt, the Navy expects sea levels to continue to rise which puts a considerable strain on Navy installations because they are primarily located in coastal areas.  For example, Norfolk Virginia (home to the world’s largest naval base) is in a low-lying area that is deemed one of the city’s most vulnerable to damage by rising sea levels.3

Current Course of Action

The Navy has recognized that a “Preponderance of global observational evidence shows the Arctic Ocean is losing sea ice, global temperatures are warming, sea level is rising, large landfast ice sheets (Greenland and Antarctic) are losing ice mass, and precipitation patterns are changing” and “The Navy acknowledges that climate change is a national security challenge with strategic implications for the Navy.”  To assess, predict and adapt to the effects of global climate change, in 2009, the highest levels of the Navy started by chartering a Task Force Climate Change which is responsible for setting the Navy’s strategy, implementing that strategy, and measuring the progress of this work.  This task force reports directly to the Chief of Naval Operations and the Secretary of Defense on the readiness of the Navy to combat the effects of global climate change.  Specific items that the task force is working on to address the issues discussed above include: evaluating the strategic implications of the Arctic ice melt, assessing current infrastructure for susceptibility to rising sea levels, and implementing rules and regulations for new infrastructure projects to be ready for rising sea levels.4

Implementation Issues and Specific Recommendations

One key issue that the Navy struggles to overcome when adjusting to the effects of global climate change is the fact that the Navy’s budget and strategy are approved by Congress which has not entirely bought into the idea of climate change or that it is a big enough concern.5  Therefore, the Navy struggles to receive appropriate resources and approval to ensure that the Navy will be ready for the changing global landscape.

The Navy needs to work through the Department of Defense and the White House to push the legislative bodies to provide appropriate resources required to continue to protect national security and international maritime law.

While it is difficult to get a picture of the strategic decisions being made to prepare for the changing Arctic Ocean, the Navy needs to continue to work to assess the status of climate change and project the impact.  In addition, the Navy is ensuring that rising sea levels are considered when designing new infrastructure projects4, however, they must increase the pace with which they are improving existing infrastructure focusing on the most strategic and the most susceptible first.


End Note:

1 – Climate Change. US Navy, Energy, Environment and Climate Change. Available at: [Accessed November 3, 2016].

2 – Chief Of Naval Operations, U.S. Navy Arctic roadmap 2014-2030, Available at: [Accessed November 4, 2016].

3 – National Climate Assessment. National Climate Assessment. Available at: [Accessed November 4, 2016].

4 – Chief Of Naval Operations, Navy Climate Change Roadmap, Available at: [Accessed November 4, 2016].

5 – Climate Change Deemed Growing Security Threat by Military … New York Times. Available at: [Accessed November 4, 2016].


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Student comments on Implications of Climate Change on US Navy Operations

  1. I appreciate you writing about the implications climate change will have on the US Navy. Mentioned above is the push for nations to potentially begin taking advantage of the Polar Ice Cap melting in order to take advantage of the resources. Supporting your point, a Forbes article recently focused on Russia’s expansion of Artic Oil Drilling, which is unique since it poses both an additional strategic resource available to Russia, and as the oil industry presence expands provides an economic incentive for Russia to improve the capability of their ice breakers (potentially improving the navigability of the Russian Northern Fleet during the winter months).

  2. I find the thought of the US government not buying in to the concept of climate change affecting national security quite troubling since the US government clearly views national security among the top priorities. One idea to navigate around the roadblock of not getting government funds to do climate change related projects is to directly work with other organizations that will benefit by having the navy work with them in getting more information and making certain actions to mitigate the effects. Have the navy’s actions in gaining security gain a commercial benefit for organizations as well. This way, incentives are aligned and a win-win relationship can be formed.

  3. It seems like the governments with the largest navies are indeed not putting enough resources into climate change initiatives. Recently members of the British Royal Navy raised awareness by testifying that warships are breaking down because the water is too hot. Such direct and significant costs may do a better job at making governments act. Some more info about the Royal Navy’s claims can be found here:

  4. Super interesting and illuminating post! I had not considered the implications of climate change on the Navy, and it is fascinating to think about how warming temperatures and melting ice caps would open up increased navigability of uncharted avenues, and prompt the advances of other countries looking to stake a claim to arctic resources. The fact that this is referred to as a national security issue speaks to the idea that the United States takes the threat posed by other countries very seriously, perhaps more seriously than it lets on to the public. At the same time, it is indeed deeply troubling that securing government funds to combat climate related risks remains a challenge. I hope this is something we as a nation can address in the very near future, before our inaction has even more dire consequences than it already has.

  5. Very interesting post. I wonder what the Navy’s mitigation strategy will be in the near future. I am guessing that most of the Navy’s ships run on fossil fuels and hence are big polluters. That being said, transforming these ships to use clean energy is probably prohibitively costly. I do not see a scenario where Congress approves budgets to include clean energy in the next generation of ships. My guess is that most of the money will go towards the next generation of weapons. This double standard of the American Government is sad but not surprising. Similar to what happened with the Kyoto negotiations, it is not clear that developed countries will lead the way on climate change.

  6. The geo-political implications of climate change will have a great impact on the Navy, especially because many of the areas currently covered in ice are expected to be oil-rich. I think that this will cause a greater need for security and sea control presence. Since Fleet Commanders generally have authority to determine the locations of the various Navy assets, congressional approval is not always required. Congressional approval is only required for the general ship operating budget.

    The Navy is taking steps to make new ships with technologies that will reduce the level of fuel dependence. For example the new class of Areleigh Burke Destroyers (DDG) will be outfitted with a hybrid electric drive. Propulsion power on a DDG is powered by 4 LM2500 Gas Turbine Engines. These engines are most efficient at 13+ knots, and therefore most transit plans are created to minimize fuel usage with average operating speeds greater than 13 knots. The hybrid electric drive will attach an electric motor to the main reduction gear of the ship and turn the drive shaft to propel the ship at speeds under 13 knots. This is expected to extend time on station by 2.5 days before a ship is required to refuel.

  7. Very interesting perspective on the nexus between climate change and national security. I am particularly interested in how changes in the arctic region have effected the challenges and opportunities from a naval perspective. With less ice creating new routes for transit and supply, and more access to resources creating more non-U.S. presence at a means to capture resources, I wonder what the effect will be on the demands of the U.S. navy. Given its global coverage and the large lead times and expenses for new ships, it seems that the U.S. navy will have to deal with these opportunities and threats with the same sized fleet as before. Will this have implications on where naval resources are stations, either for a deterrent effect or to reduce time required to establish a presence in the arctic in the face of a perceived threat? Will any rebalancing of the U.S. naval fleets global presence then require a reprioritization of the Navy’s other missions and roles? The short to medium term effects on U.S. naval planning and it’s footprint present a logistically complex problem in my mind.

  8. Thanks for tackling this interesting and super pertinent issue. As you mentioned in your piece, the United States has identified climate change as the greatest threat to national security, but this emphasis has not been addressed at the tactical level. In terms of operations, some other areas worth exploring are the writing of OPLANs (operational plans) for contingencies that may arise in this area, the size and composition of the U.S. Navy’s fleet (do we have enough ice breakers?), and training considerations (to prepare crews for operations in such an environment).

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