June 03, 2011

Weather as a security threat

Weather. You may not consider it a threat, but with tornados and other kinds of severe weather killing an average of more than 60 Americans each year, you could equate it with an attack. But is climate change, what some scientists say is causing more severe weather, a security threat?

As we’ve witnessed in the past few weeks, deadly tornados can pop up just about anywhere in our country. An EF5 tornado, the strongest on the Enhanced Fujita Scale, tore through Joplin, Mo. last month killing 134, and making it the deadliest American tornado since 1947. And just yesterday, at least six reported tornados touched down in Western Massachusetts killing four.

With the increasing threat comes the need for the National Guard to ramp up its resources to respond to these natural disasters.

“The weather has always been an issue,” said Missouri National Guard Major Tamara Spicer. “This is the 21st time the Missouri National Guard has conducted state and emergency operations since 2005.” The Guard started tracking those operations that year, Spicer said.

Spicer said 700 Missouri National guardsmen mobilized for flooding just three weeks ago. Spicer also said out of 11,500 guardsmen, 275 are on the ground in Joplin. The guardsmen initially aided search and rescue teams. There’s no training to learn how to find a victim after a tornado has destroyed a city, she said.

“We don’t go through special training,” Spicer said. The training the Guard does go through for other operations aids teams in what they’ll do in the event of an emergency.

Now, the guardsman in Joplin are controlling traffic, patrolling neighborhoods and going into communities with military vehicles, Spicer said.

So besides helping with the recovery effort, why does the National Guard respond to these disasters?

“Having that uniformed presence just shows the state cares,” Spicer said. “You’re not in this alone and it says that they’re safe. When those humvees are driving through these rubble-covered roads, they’re on the lookout.

“You can’t go anywhere in Joplin in your military uniform without getting hugged,” she said. “There’s just such a sense of gratitude. Gov. [Jay] Nixon immediately mustered all state resources and pushed them to Joplin because he did not want Joplin to feel alone or overwhelmed.”

What is causing the severe weather? Will Rogers, a research associate at the Center for a New American Security, said it could be climate change.

“There is no scientific evidence to suggest that recent catastrophic weather events are directly linked to global climate change, yet it is important to point out that scientists suggest that the consequences stemming from global climate change could manifest themselves in ways that are similar to the most extreme weather events that the country has experienced,” Rogers said. “For example, category five hurricanes could be more frequent and more severe as a result of climate change; wildfires and other heat-related phenomenon could be more pronounced and intense as drought conditions become worse and temperatures increase in vulnerable regions such as the American Southwest.”

The Environmental Defense Fund agrees.

“Studies show that global warming will increase the frequency or intensity of many kinds of extreme weather,” the fund writes on its website. “While we can’t attribute a particular heat wave or hurricane to global warming, the trends are clear: Global warming loads the atmospheric dice to roll ‘heat wave’ or ‘intense storm’ more often.

“The 100-year storms that we see that cause severe damage could occur every 10 years instead as a result of climate change, and we need to be prepared to adapt to a future where these kinds of events are more common than they have been in the past,” Rogers said.

A 100-year storm every 10 years means more work for the National Guard, more response, and a guardsman who before may never have had to aid in a natural disaster, to one who could respond more than once to all different kinds of weather.

“If climate change manifests in more frequent and severe storms, some National Guard units may be called upon more often to respond to them,” Rogers said.

“These kind of frequent deployments to respond to natural disasters could put a strain on the National Guard’s current force structure, which is why it is important that the National Guard and the U.S. military as a whole continue to integrate climate change into its strategic planning documents so that they are prepared to meet the challenges from global climate change and that they have the capability to respond when they must, he said.

“The National Guard serves in part as an element of the nation’s first responders,” Rogers said. He noted disaster relief and assistance the Guard provided in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the tornado outbreak in Joplin.