Guest Column
MacDill Air Force Base’s security is threatened by climate change | Column
Hurricanes and floods in Tampa would disrupt Central Command and Special Operations Command’s crucial work, while extreme weather abroad exacerbates the crises they deal with each day.
A KC-135 refueling aircraft flies over the Dale Mabry entrance of Macdill Air Force Base while coming in for a landing in January.
A KC-135 refueling aircraft flies over the Dale Mabry entrance of Macdill Air Force Base while coming in for a landing in January. [ Times (2021) ]
Published May 16, 2021|Updated May 16, 2021

Florida’s importance in protecting America’s national security is indisputable. Home to more than 20 bases, Florida’s coastline is a natural choice for military exercises and deterrence. Tampa, in particular, is a critical bastion. Extreme temperatures, severe flooding and stronger, more frequent hurricanes pose direct threats to Tampa’s, and the nation’s, military infrastructure.

Lee Gunn
Lee Gunn [ Provided ]

In just one decade, from 2008 to 2018, extreme heat-related injuries cost the U.S. military almost $1 billion through retraining, medical care and tens of thousands of lost training days — a direct effect of a warming climate. This problem will only worsen. By the year 2050 MacDill Air Force Base and Coast Guard Sector St. Petersburg are expected to experience 76 to 116 more days a year with a heat index above 100 degrees, a four-fold increase in dangerously hot days.

Flooding from rising seas and worsening storms is yet another climate threat expected to worsen over the coming decades. By 2050, Florida coastal bases may flood 10 times more often than they do today. Losing access to base facilities and closing for repairs restricts training, which directly affects readiness.

A study published last year suggests hurricanes are becoming increasingly stronger, with higher wind speeds maintained for longer periods. Hurricanes are also moving more slowly over land, releasing greater volumes of rain and making severe flooding more likely and frequent. Hurricane Dorian, for example, released approximately 60 inches of rain while stalled over the Bahamas for 40 hours. The 2021 hurricane season is predicted to be more active than normal due to El Niño and warming temperatures. In 2018 Hurricane Michael struck Tyndall Air Force Base, just 240 miles northwest of Tampa, causing $3 billion in damages and disrupting training and repairs for nearly a month.

MacDill is under a similar threat. In addition to key aviation units, MacDill is home to Central Command and U.S. Special Operations Command, responsible for the Middle East and U.S. global special operations respectively. Climate change acts as a threat multiplier in their decision making. Hurricanes and floods in Tampa disrupt the commands’ crucial work, while extreme weather abroad exacerbates the crises they deal with each day, including migration and terror groups.

Finally, as many Floridians are aware, flooding events can fuel harmful algal blooms like the 2017-18 Red Tide. For example, power outages during storms cause wastewater plants to shut down and discharge raw sewage. Stormwater runoff carries sewage and other fertilizers to coastal waters, lengthening the bloom’s intensities and durations. Harmful algal blooms can disrupt training and operations for both the Coast Guard and MacDill’s 6th Security Forces Squadron marine patrol unit.

The nation can ill-afford these disruptions. Tampa Bay is home to Coast Guardsmen who keep residents safe and to Airmen preparing to defend America. Heat, floods, hurricanes and harmful algal blooms can reduce their time to train.

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During my long career in the Navy, risk management and mitigation was key in preparing our forces for the numerous threats we face. The same skills must be used to address climate security threats.

Adaptation and resilience programs are available. For example, the Military Installation Sustainability program helps bases enhance or fortify infrastructure within installations. The Hazard Mitigation Grant Program provides funding to rebuild in a way that reduces or mitigates future community disaster losses. To be effective, however, Congress must continue to expand funding for these and similar programs.

We know that waiting for 100 percent certainty on the battlefield can be disastrous, and our certainty about the national security consequences of climate change is high enough to demand immediate action. We cannot afford to wait.

On Wednesday, I will be joining the American Security Project for a virtual discussion about these crucial needs. The military and governments at all levels must collaborate and invest in resiliency to ensure our bases continue operating as climate security threats become more common.

Navy Vice Admiral Lee Gunn (Ret.) will discuss resiliency measures needed to protect Florida bases from climate security threats and broader U.S. national security interests during a virtual event on Wednesday at 2 p.m. EDT. For more information and to register, visit the American Security Project’s event page.

Vice Admiral Gunn served in the U.S. Navy for 35 years prior to his retirement in 2000. His last active-duty assignment was Inspector General of the Department of the Navy where, together with his Marine Deputy, he was responsible for the department’s overall inspection program and its assessments of readiness training, and quality of service. He serves on the American Security Project’s Board of Directors.