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Alaska military sites vulnerable to climate change

Jul. 5, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
RED FLAG-Alaska 12-2
An aerial view of the Joint Pacific Range Complex in Alaska on June 20, 2012. (Tech. Sgt. Michael R. Holzworth/Air Force)
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ANCHORAGE, ALASKA — A yearlong study on the effects of climate change on U.S. military installations included four Alaska military sites or complexes studied for vulnerabilities, according to a report out this week from the Government Accountability Office.

The Alaska locations are among the most at risk, according to the GAO report released Monday. Those locations have seen problems associated with climate change that include increased wildfires preventing training, coastal erosion threatening equipment and melting permafrost making road travel in some areas difficult, the GAO report says. The locations in the assessment included Fort Wainwright, the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex, the Yukon Training Area, and the 611th Civil Engineer Squadron remote radar sites.

The Department of Defense had found that climate change could affect military readiness and result in heavy spending at any of its more than 550,000 facilities around the world, covering a footprint of roughly 28 million acres and worth about $850 billion, the report says. The GAO staff were asked to assess the 15 sample sites and actions they had taken to mitigate the risks.

Officials at nine of the 15 sites noted changes in precipitation patterns, which resulted in weeks of rain at one location that experienced flooding and mudslides and, at an unspecified Alaska location, drought conditions that led to wildfires that prevented training with certain types of weapons, the report says.

“For example, there was no live-fire training allowed in one training area for two months,” the report says.

At another Alaska training zone, melting permafrost under two gravel roads and a drop zone forced more than $500,000 in repairs, according to the GAO report. And the combination of permafrost and sea ice melting, along with rising sea levels, was causing erosion at radar and communication sites on Alaska’s coast, including one that needed seawall and runway improvements expected to cost $25 million, the report says.

The report notes that the Department of Defense has taken steps to protect its facilities from climate change-related issues, but says officials at individual installations do not often propose such projects, because “climate change adaptation” is not included as a criteria in the funding process.

“As a result, installation planners may believe that climate change adaptation projects are unlikely to successfully compete with other military construction projects for funding,” the report says.

The study’s authors suggest focusing on installations in the Defense Critical Infrastructure Protection Program that have seen or may see rapid climate change, including in Alaska and the Arctic.

Sen. Mark Begich, one of five senators who requested the study, called Alaska “ground-zero for climate change” and said the report was confirmation of that.

“We need to get in front of these changes to protect the taxpayer, keep costs low, and keep Alaska ready to support the larger mission,” Begich said in a statement.

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