To prepare for climate change, U.S. Air Force enlists CSU scientists, engineers

Vandenberg air force base

From rising temperatures to eroding beaches and increased flood and wildfire risks, a warming climate will have ripple effects across the world – and the U.S. military wants to be ready.

Colorado State University civil engineers, climate modelers and natural resource managers are working together to help set military priorities to prepare for worst-case scenarios tied to climate change.

A CSU research team led by the Center for Environmental Management of Military Lands (CEMML) is supported by a nearly $3 million grant from the U.S. Air Force to help its most vulnerable installations – bases, facilities and other Air Force-owned properties – prepare for the threat of climate change.

A year into their initial efforts, the CSU team has defined the assessment process and completed an analysis for California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base, with 67 more installations on their list to tackle.

“One of CEMML’s strengths is understanding the information needed by installation leaders in terms of natural resources,” said Liz Caldwell, project lead and CEMML associate director. “We are able to take all the modeling information and bring it down to what we call ‘red, yellow green’ – most urgent, to least.”

Multiple disciplines, common goals

The CSU team includes Ken Carlson, professor of civil and environmental engineering; Chris Thornton, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering; Dennis Ojima, senior research scientist at the Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory in the Warner College of Natural Resources; CEMML program manager Mindy Clarke; and 20 or so graduate students and researchers. The North Central Climate Science Center has also provided staff and computing resources for the project.

The team brings together individual expertise in military land use, civil infrastructure, hydrology, natural resources ecology and climate modeling. Together, they are assessing potential climate change-induced impacts on installation resources, with the goal of recommending tangible adaptation strategies to support short- and long-term management decisions to minimize these impacts. According to the researchers, the transdisciplinary nature of the team is paramount to its success.

“Our three groups collaborating together has opened our eyes to what each group can do, and we think this is just the start,” Carlson said.

Vandenberg threatened by sea level rise

For each of the U.S. Air Force bases, the researchers are looking beyond baseline conditions by applying two carbon emissions estimate scenarios ­– moderate and high – and extending the analyses through the years 2030 and 2050.

For example, for the Vandenberg Air Force Base report just completed, the team modeled the hydrology and hydraulics of the Santa Ynez River and San Antonio Creek basin to project flooding risk in the years 2030 and 2050. Flooding could worsen due to sea level rise, storm surges and tides.

They pointed to such concerns as a disturbance in the equilibrium state of the Bishop Pine forest due to rising temperatures. They also included potential impacts on animal species like the red-legged frog and the California least tern due to worsening drought conditions. In addition, projections of flooding inundation were overlaid with built infrastructure to highlight vulnerabilities of roads, buildings and other structures.

Their recommendations for adaptation strategies included channel modifications, diversion spillways, storm surge gates and culvert expansions, as well as erosion monitoring, bulkheads and artificial breakwaters.

The researchers are now applying a similar method to assess other installations, including Bellows Air Force Station in Hawaii, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida and Misawa Air Base in Japan. 

Integration into larger plans

The lists of adaptation strategies being prepared by the CSU team will fold into Integrated Natural Resources Management Plans commissioned by the U.S. Department of Defense. Each branch of the U.S. military is required to submit these planning documents to “implement landscape-level management of their natural resources” at individual installations. The plans help ensure sustainability of realistic habitat conditions and high-quality lands for military training, biodiversity and recreation.

CEMML is a service, education and research unit within the Warner College of Natural Resources. For more than three decades, the center has supported military readiness and resource conservation.