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The U.S. military’s climate adaptation challenge

The U.S. military’s climate adaptation challenge

Military's Challenge

The US military faces a significant challenge as increasing temperatures threaten national security and potentially alter the nature of warfare. The Department of Defense is taking action to address these climate-related threats. Hardening infrastructure supporting warfighters, such as micro-power grids, makes installations more resilient against cyberattack threats.

However, the US military is also under pressure to reduce its carbon footprint, as it is one of the world’s largest emitters of carbon dioxide, responsible for 80 percent of federal energy consumption. While climate-related challenges are immediately apparent for the Navy and Air Force, which operate from fixed installations, the Army needs to address the specific threat posed by increasing temperatures on soldiers. Unlike equipment that can be technologically upgraded, the human body has physiological limits in extreme heat.

Parts of the world are experiencing temperature extremes that challenge human endurance. Heat stroke, a severe condition caused by excessive core body temperature (104ºF and above), poses a significant risk to soldiers. Preventing heat stroke becomes increasingly tricky in hotter environments due to the physiological limits of the human body.

Soldiers generate substantial metabolic heat when engaged in physically demanding activities, necessitating effective cooling mechanisms to prevent heat-related illnesses. In high-humidity environments, sweating is less effective as a cooling method since it doesn’t evaporate as quickly, especially under uniforms and body armor. This makes it challenging to maintain a safe core temperature in extreme conditions.

Climate change gradually increases global temperatures, increasing frequent and intense heat waves.

Adapting to rising battlefield temperatures

The operational environment for military forces will be drastically altered.

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For instance, by 2050, Fort Liberty in North Carolina is expected to see a 375 percent increase in days with temperatures above 95ºF. The frequency and severity of heat waves will significantly affect land operations. In some regions, the combined effect of temperature and humidity will exceed the tolerance levels of humans, even those at rest in shaded areas.

Throughout history, climatic conditions have always influenced military operations. While shifts in climate did not determine human decisions, they constrained the options available to combatants. The rapidly changing climate now mandates that military professionals recognize these environmental impacts.

Some nations are already adapting. Singapore has implemented measures to prevent soldier heat stroke, including tailored training regimens for recruits. The British Army has encouraged heat casualty studies through the Royal Army Medical Corps, focusing on operations in hot climates.

In contrast, other armies have yet to generalize these observations or integrate detailed studies into their training programs. India’s military, for example, has incorporated research into the gradual increase of rigorous training to acclimate soldiers to the intense heat. As Earth heats up, resilient and adaptive armies will have a strategic advantage on future battlefields.

National decisions today will influence how nations cope with climate-induced changes and harness opportunities to maintain a competitive edge.

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