Sandia Labs News Releases

U.S. Navy experience shows climate alterations, invited speaker at Sandia Labs says

Information based on data, not computer models

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Because its presence is worldwide, the U.S. Navy sees the effects of climate change directly, an invited lecturer in Sandia National Laboratories’ ongoing Climate Change and National Security Speaker Series recently told his scientific audience in Albuquerque and, by teleconference, Livermore, Calif.

“The findings are independent of climate models,” said Antonio Busalacchi, professor and director of the Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center (ESSIC) at the University of Maryland and former chief of the NASA/Goddard Laboratory for Hydrospheric Processes. 

In an effort to shed light on the wide spectrum of thought regarding the causes and extent of changes in Earth’s climate, Sandia National Laboratories has invited experts from a wide variety of perspectives to present their views in the Climate Change and National Security Speaker Series.

The global community needs the scientific capacity to improve and sustain global observations, he said, for more realistic global and regional climate models. 

Busalacchi, lecturing on “Climate Research in Service to Society,” described extensive gathering of climate data over the last 32 years, coordinated by the World Climate Research Programme (WCRP), which Busalacchi chairs. As one example, he described “unprecedented sampling of the world’s oceans” during an ocean circulation experiment.

Key to that effort was a fleet of 3,000 “argo float capsules,” each a few feet long, capable of submerging 2,000 meters (6,562 feet) before floating to the surface while recording ocean temperatures and salinities. The data they sent  allowed scientists to link ocean and atmosphere data and forecast seasonal effects of El Niño from 1997 and 1998.

Busalacchi was most vivid in describing his work co-chairing a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) committee to determine national security implications of climate change for U.S. naval actions. Among those who briefed his committee were the supreme allied commander of the U.S. European command, members of the National Intelligence Council and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

The committee learned that the Navy is confronting more extreme temperatures worldwide, he said, along with the melting of sea ice and glaciers, the rise of sea levels at isolated locations, more frequent high-intensity storms, more droughts, regional flooding, ocean temperature increase and declining reserves of potable water because of increased salinity.

Because melting sea ice gives all comers greater Arctic access, the Navy also faces strategic issues of potential cooperation, competition or conflict due to significantly increased shipping and exploration in the region. Busalacchi predicted open summer navigation passages could appear by 2030, as well as the opening of new international and territorial waters.

“The implications of reduced Arctic Ocean sea ice require immediate planning and attention by U.S. naval forces,” he said. Specific logistical challenges include remoteness of locations, lack of ports and airbase facilities, limited U.S. icebreakers and insufficient charting, along with increased maritime traffic.

Vulnerability assessments for naval coastal installations must account for storm surge, salt water intrusion and changes in ocean circulation and wind patterns. “Global rises don’t matter here,” he said. “Sea level rise can be local.”

The NAS report also addressed climate impacts on antisubmarine warfare and future research and development needs, Busalacchi said.

Disparities in current climate science projections “mean that the Navy should plan for a range of contingencies, given our limited ability to predict abrupt change or tipping points for potentially irreversible change,” he said.

Cloud radiative feedback is the largest uncertainty in climate prediction, Busalacchi said, but researchers now are getting better handles on that data from field and spacecraft observations.

Answering a question, he said, “The most significant missing capability in our satellite portfolio is finding an affordable means of on-orbit calibration (to link) stable measurements over a long period of time, and the ability to piece together climate data records … as satellite sensor sensitivity evolves.” 

He also said bathymetry, or underwater mapping, in the region is poorly done. “Since the end of the Cold War, we’ve lost our experience and training with equipment for the Arctic area,” he said.

Among other unknowns are the effects of climate change on projected global population growth and migration, which could greatly amplify geopolitical stress. “We need increased and enduring education in the developed and developing world,” he said, “so we can mitigate these effects.”

Because increased humanitarian assistance and disaster relief could strain U.S. systems, he said that U.S. Navy hospital ships should be retained.

Busalacchi also lamented the lack of national strategy for long-term space-based climate observation in this country. Some scientists seem to have little sense of cost-benefit analysis in their proposals, he said.

“As a nation, we haven’t come to grips with what are the unique responsibilities of NASA, NOAA and the USGS,” he said. The cost of satellites, he said, “is eating the agencies’ lunch. … Until we can break that Gordian knot, we’re all going to be subject to the pieces falling to the floor.” NOAA is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and USGS is the U.S. Geological Survey.

Sandia National Laboratories is a multi-program laboratory operated by Sandia Corporation, a wholly owned subsidiary of Lockheed Martin company, for the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration. With main facilities in Albuquerque, N.M., and Livermore, Calif., Sandia has major R&D responsibilities in national security, energy and environmental technologies and economic competitiveness.

Sandia news media contact: Neal Singer,, (505) 845-7078