LAUREL, Md. -- Climate change is poised to turn the Arctic into a new military frontier, but that doesn't mean it's likely thaw out as a new "Wild West."
A Russian expedition made headlines in 2007 when it planted a Russian flag in an Arctic seabed, spurring headlines suggesting a new Cold War was imminent. But for the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard, the challenge posed by climate change -- in the Arctic and beyond -- is more complex, long-term and tinged with uncertainty.
"For the U.S. Navy, climate change is a challenge -- and not a crisis," said Rear Adm. David Titley, who is leading the Navy's Task Force Climate Change. "I would say that my Russian friends probably did us more help than anything by putting that flag on the North Pole. It got us to focus on the Arctic. But there was a great article in National Geographic that indicates that was kind of a tourist expedition."
That doesn't mean there isn't reason for concern about changes in the high North.
"The thing is that the Arctic is not a vacuum," Titley said yesterday at a conference at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Lab. "What happens there will have repercussions in mid-latitude, and vice versa."
That holds true for changes in the Arctic atmosphere and its geopolitics. Results from Navy war games suggest conflicts that arise in the far North may spread beyond the Arctic Circle, Titley said.
But there are some factors that may temper the pace of change -- and its political and national security fallout.
Take talk about new shipping routes that are likely to emerge as the Arctic thaws. In 2008, the long-sought Northwest Passage and Northern Sea Route were open simultaneously -- though briefly -- for the first time in recorded history.
Search-and-rescue capability may set the pace
Some cruise ships and even a few sailboats have been sighted in the Arctic in recent years. But Richard Engel, a retired Air Force major general who leads the National Intelligence Council's climate change program, said that even if Arctic summers are free of sea ice in the 2030s, shippers may not pounce immediately.
Their operations will depend on putting in place infrastructure -- like search-and-rescue capability -- that is now absent.
"It won't be quite as fast as people lead you to believe," Engel said. "It's commercial and economic interests that may slow it up a little bit."
Debate over just how climate change will play out in the Arctic highlights the uncertainty faced by military planners who recognize climate change's disruptive potential.
The Navy last year commissioned its first ship bearing a hybrid gas-electric drive, the USS Makin Island. And next month, on Earth Day, the force will conduct an airborne test of an F/A-18 aircraft powered by biofuels -- the "Green Hornet."
But amid those concrete steps to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels that contribute to climate, the Navy is wrestling with more fundamental questions posed by climate change.
"Uncertainty is very tightly linked with risk," said Jay Gulledge, senior scientist at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. "And that's what the security implications of climate change is about -- risk, and how we're going to manage that risk."
Climate change is a complex problem that involves predicting changes in nonlinear systems, where even slight shifts in key variables can cause major shifts in outcomes. Adding to that, Gulledge said, is the fact that climate change is a problem that spans generations.
The temptation for many people is ignoring the problem, because the risk seems hard to define or far off. Tackling that uncertainty head-on isn't simple.
For Titley, who's heading a Navy task force shaping that force's response to climate change, one major problem is that current climate models make predictions on a continent-by-continent, not region-by-region, basis, at time scales well beyond the Navy's planning horizon.
"The paradox with climate is, in some ways, the forecasts for 2100 are a lot more confident than the forecasts for 2013," he said.
And science is developing rapidly.
Last month, the Pentagon's Quadrennial Defense Review made headlines with its assessment that climate change has become a "threat multiplier" for the nation's armed forces.
But experts noted that that review, mandated by Congress in the 2008 defense authorization bill, relied on middle-range predictions of future warming taken from the 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
That science, in many cases, is already out of date.
The IPCC predicted the world's seas would rise between 7 and 23 inches by 2100 -- but issued a giant caveat. The IPCC cautioned that an additional rise could come from rapid and unpredictable melting of massive ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica, which it didn't attempt to estimate.
Three years later, a crop of new scientific analyses paint a picture of 1 to 2 meters of sea level rise -- roughly 3 to 7 feet -- by the end of the century.
Predictions become more severe
But the quadrennial review, directed by Congress to rely on the IPCC's mid-range projections, didn't capture those recent scientific advances. The IPCC report, published in 2007, relied on analyses from 2005 or earlier.
"Climate risks are loaded to the more severe side," Gulledge said. "It's more likely that we're underestimating than overestimating at this point."
There are risks that may be overstated -- and potential threats that are true wild cards.
Dabelko said he puts climate migration in the first category, as something that is frequently sensationalized.
"There's a very large uncertainty with migration, but it can be a good thing," said Geoff Dabelko, director of the Environmental Change and Security Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center. "It can defuse conflict when people move. It really matters how it's done."
"We are pushed to oversimplify," he said, offering blunt advice: "Embrace the uncertainty. The mindset and tools that the security community brings to this are very well positioned in terms of planning for the worse and hoping for the best."
Meanwhile, there are the wild cards. One of them, according to the Navy's Titley, is shifting ocean chemistry.
The world's seas help sop up carbon dioxide emissions, but as output of the greenhouse gas has risen, that has made ocean water more acidic. Scientists say that will cause problems for marine species -- including shellfish, corals, plankton and other marine animals -- that grow hard shells made of a chalky mineral called calcium carbonate. If ocean water becomes too acidic, it can begin dissolving those shells, sometimes faster than the creatures can rebuild them.
Scientists at sea on ocean chemistry change
"It's a wild card as to whether or not, or how, the living ecosystem, from tiny critters to big fish, is going to adapt," Titley said. "If they don't, we have to start asking ourselves where the 1 billion people today who get protein from the ocean are going to get that from."
Experts also said they are eyeing talk of geoengineering closely, figuring that many of the proposed schemes to engineer a cooler planet have the potential to spark geopolitical havoc.
One oft-mentioned geoengineering approach is to mimic the cooling effects of a volcano by spraying sulfate particles into the upper atmosphere, where they would increase the amount of sunlight reflected away from Earth.
Scientists say it's cheap enough that a very wealthy individual or an individual nation might be able to act unilaterally and deploy the scheme without international oversight.
"We know very little about this," Dabelko said. "It holds big potential for challenges in the political realm, the security realm, that we have not fully grappled with. ... It's not a stretch that the Navy would be asked to monitor or interdict these activities."
Other potential wild cards, experts at the conference said, include the possibility that a climate-related push for new technology and new forms of energy will spur demand for a new set of natural resources in short supply.
Increased production of electric car batteries, for example, is driving a new global hunger for lithium. Half the world's supply is found in Bolivia, whose president, Evo Morales, is an outspoken critic of the United States.