Global Warming: The Military's Other Enemy

Dec 9, 2015· 4 MIN READ


Photo: Petty Officer 1st Class Tiffini M. Jones, courtesy U.S. Northern Command

Men with beards. That’s probably who you think of when you picture people who collect the data that underlies global warming and climate change theory. Scientists in parkas. Sunburned graduate students.

While that’s true in a lot of cases, much of the information scientists rely on to make climate predictions comes from a more unlikely, less shaggy source: the U.S. military. The boys in green, or, as is the case for much of this research, Navy and Air Force blue. Men with crew cuts, as it were.

Through satellite, remote imaging, and even submarine technologies, the military owns and operates a broad range of tools that can monitor and evaluate environmental conditions, often in the Arctic, where melting ice is a common litmus test for rising global temperatures.

And in many cases, the military can collect the data better than anyone else. Scientists and universities often have pitiful amounts of research money; the U.S. Defense budget is around $700 billion a year.

The military is also increasingly concerned about America's ability to respond to the effects of climate change on events around the world. Earlier this year, for instance, the Department of Defense’s Quadrennial Defense Review singled out climate change as a strategic concern for the future.

“Assessments … indicate that climate change could have significant geopolitical impacts around the world, contributing to poverty, environmental degradation, and the further weakening of fragile governments,” the report reads.

“While climate change does not cause conflict, it may act as an accelerant of instability or conflict.”

The assessment came on the back of a 2009 report from the CNA Corporation, a nonprofit research and analysis group for the Navy, that called climate change a “threat multiplier” and said, “climate change, national security and energy dependence are a related set of global challenges.”

Suffice it to say, the military wants to keep a close eye on what’s happening with the environment (many of its Navy bases are under threat from rising seas) and has made moves to go more green. To broaden its knowledge, the military often seeks out civilian scientists and provides them access to its information-gathering tools. For instance…

Photo: CoreBurn&39;s Flickr photostream/Creative Commons

Weather Satellites

A military weather satellite is one of the most useful tools in a climate change scientist's arsenal. Using sensors on satellites in the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP), run by the Air Force and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, scientists can take frequent, detailed looks at very hard-to-reach environments, the high Arctic in particular, says Walt Meier, a research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC).

The satellites' readings of the polar region provide the bulk of the information in some of NSIDC's most important reports—including one that tracks the annual ebb and flow of Arctic sea ice. Thanks largely to satellite information, there is proof that Artic ice has been in a steady, decades-long decline.

DMSP satellites have also been used to track the health of coral reefs, monitor gas flares (the open-air disposal of excess natural gas), and reveal human population densities (nighttime images of the globe show which areas emit the most light).

Spy Satellites

Believe it or not, America has secretive reconnaissance satellites orbiting the earth with optics sophisticated enough to read your driver’s license from outer space. Occasionally those satellites are programmed to take pictures when they fly over areas where there’s nothing to see. Except ice.

In the 1990s, in a program championed by then-Vice President Al Gore, the military began releasing detailed images of sea ice floes. Really detailed images.

“In the spy satellite data, you can see individual floes of ice. You can see ponds of melt water,” says the NSIDC's Meier.

That’s precisely what NSIDC program manager Florence Fetterer, who’s worked with the satellite images since the 1990s, wanted to see in the high-resolution pictures. By looking at detailed pictures of the ponds as they form, grow, and spread, Fetterer has been able to study and log data on how Arctic sea ice melts over the course of a summer.

Check out Figure 5 on this page for a look at the types of images Fetterer uses—and how detailed they are.

More Arctic spy photos can be seen here.

The satellites are actually owned by the C.I.A., according to The New York Times, and have also been used to monitor boat traffic along reefs in the Florida Keys. The C.I.A., by the way, also recently opened its very own climate change office.

Photo: Petty Officer 1st Class Tiffini M. Jones, courtesy U.S. Northern Command

Submarine Sonar

Scientists use satellites to look down and see how much ice there is, but how thick is that frozen covering? For that answer, researchers turn to a trove of information collected by the Navy over the past four decades which was recently declassified and released for public use.

So they would know how deep to dive to avoid hitting undersea ice, subs prowling the Arctic in the late 1950s and throughout the Cold War took readings of ice thickness with something called Upward-Looking Sonar.

Later, in the 1990s, under another initiative from Al Gore, Meier says, scientists were given access to those recordings. The material continues to be expanded and updated as military subs trawl northern waters.

Fetterer underlined the importance of that data to climate and ice researchers.

“That is now proving to be very important to finding out how thick the ice was in the past.”

In addition, the Navy performs periodic, unclassified scientific exercises in the Arctic (dubbed SCICEX and ICEX), bringing researchers to remote locations and setting up Arctic camps for weeks at a time.


Developed as the next generation of battlefield surveillance and remote weaponry, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) also have qualities that make them useful for tracking weather and climate patterns. Small, sophisticated, and capable of long-range, high-altitude flight, they have the ability to collect mountains of data that would otherwise require a plane crewed by people.

In 2007, according to Wired, the military donated a pair of Global Hawk UAVs to NASA to be retrofitted as weather and atmosphere research vehicles, with some of the first flights taking off early in 2010. Dubbed “a revolutionary aircraft for science because of its enormous range and endurance,” by one NASA scientist, the UAV is the latest application of military technology to scientific efforts to track climate change.

Quick Study: Climate Change | Arctic Ice Melting