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CHIPS Articles: Talking with Rear Adm. David W. Titley

Talking with Rear Adm. David W. Titley
Director of Task Force Climate Change
Oceanographer and Navigator of the Navy
By CHIPS Magazine - July-September 2010
In 2009, Rear Adm. David W. Titley assumed duties as oceanographer and navigator of the Navy. Rear Adm. Titley is also the director of the Navy's Task Force Climate Change as designated by the Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead. TFCC is a matrixed organization that runs across multiple Navy staff codes and warfare enterprises. Consisting of a flag-level Executive Steering Committee, led by the oceanographer of the Navy, and several senior level working groups, TFCC is tasked to make recommendations to Navy leadership regarding policy, strategy, force structure and investments relating to the changing Arctic specifically and global climate change in general.

TFCC invites advisory participants from interested joint and interagency stakeholders including U.S. Northern Command; Commander, Pacific Fleet; U.S. European Command; the Office of Naval Research; the National Maritime Intelligence Center; U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters; the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; the Office of the Secretary of Defense; the office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and the Center for Naval Analyses.

Tellingly, Rear Adm. Titley gave his first interview as the director of Task Force Climate Change for the Pentagon's news service from Barrow, Alaska, above the Arctic Circle, July 28, 2009, near the heart of melting sea ice.

The consensus of scientific opinion is that the Arctic will be navigable for several months in the second half of the century. This could spark a race between nations for natural resources exploration and open up the area for increased commercial shipping and fishing. Globally, sea level rise and fresh water shortages will impact coastal military installations and present serious problems for many resource-challenged nations. These, and other potential outcomes, may increase the number of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions for the Department of Defense and could present national security risks as well.

CHIPS talked to Titley in a series of conversations. The first discussion was May 21; just hours after Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert approved the Climate Change Roadmap. The second opportunity occurred May 27 at a media roundtable from the Pentagon.

CHIPS: Task Force Climate Change was established to assess the Navy's preparedness to respond to emerging requirements, and to develop a science-based timeline for future Navy actions regarding climate change. What has the task force accomplished so far?

Rear Adm. Titley: In a year we put together a strategy: two roadmaps that addressed the challenges. The first one, the Arctic Roadmap was signed in 2009, and I am very happy to tell you, and you are the first person in the media I've told this to, as of two hours ago, the VCNO Adm. Jonathan Greenert signed out the Climate Change Roadmap so that is literally hot off the press this morning.

CHIPS: That's exciting.

Rear Adm. Titley: It is for us on moving ahead. Both these roadmaps are structured very similarly. You will see the Climate Change Roadmap is very similar in the sense that we are making sure we have our strategy right, making sure that we have our partnerships right, that we understand the underlying science, assessments and predictions of climate change, and the components that will most impact national security in general and the Navy in particular.

Then we consider all of those components and that will result in a recommended investment strategy that will inform the Navy's future budget deliberations. I picked the word informed carefully because, as I'm sure you know Sharon, many, many items will inform the Navy's budget. The Navy has many requirements from different sources so climate change will be one consideration as we develop future budgets.

CHIPS: Will climate change have an impact on everything the Navy buys?

Rear Adm. Titley: This is what we need to understand. As an example, I'll go back to the Arctic, where we've had a roadmap in execution for about six months now. The Arctic Ocean is frozen all winter, and open a few months in the summer. It is a very harsh environment. So it would be easy to think that if we are going to operate in the Arctic we will need ice-hardened ships. But we really need to think through that carefully and do the analysis and things like war gaming to determine the value. Because when you work in six or more feet of ice, you can't go any faster than 2 or 3 knots. No surface ship can. So you lose one of the key characteristics of a surface ship and that is the mobility for commanders to move from one part of the battlespace to another.

We are contemplating building ships with modest ice-strengthening to work in what is called the marginal ice zone — just on the edge of the ice. Experts tell me that to ice-harden a naval combatant vessel would add about 25 percent to the existing cost of the ship. Take an Arleigh Burke destroyer, in very rough terms, it costs about $1 billion to build. If we were to build a guided missile destroyer for ice capability it would easily cost over $1 and a quarter billion for each one of those ships. As I'm sure everyone has heard, the Secretary of Defense has made himself crystal clear that the fiscal conditions for the next few years are going to be very, very tight. So this means that the Navy has to really understand how much value we would get for that ice-hardened ship — as an example.

We understand that the Arctic is changing, but we are focusing on the challenge soon enough so we can pace this threat. We don't want to spend money before we have to, but conversely, we also do not want to find ourselves in what I would call a tail chase where the Arctic is changing faster than we can change the Navy.

CHIPS: Can you talk about other organizations and agencies that you work with?

Rear Adm. Titley: Right from the beginning we realized that, especially for the Arctic, but for climate change too, we need the United States Coast Guard and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), as our partners. The Coast Guard has icebreakers in the Arctic today; they are learning how to operate icebreakers with some of the other vessels in the regions of Alaska north of the Bering Strait. It's not just our Coast Guard partners, but our Canadian partners, our Danish partners, our Norwegian partners, are very, very important.

NOAA has [established], under the leadership of Dr. Jane Lubchenco, the administrator for NOAA, a Climate Services Division. They are the source of much of the scientific data. We want a deep understanding of the great work that NOAA has done and the ability to have a very constructive and productive dialogue.

As I told CNO, we cannot and will not wait for perfect information about the future. Such information, frankly, just doesn't exist in any field. I would argue there is no successful organization that waits for that perfect information, but what we do want to understand is the most likely outcome, and what could be some wild cards that we should at least consider in planning so we can make the best informed decision using science as the basis of our decisions.

I have executive members of both NOAA and the Coast Guard on my Executive Steering Committee, which are basically one and two-star flag officers, and some very senior government civilians. Beyond that we are working very closely with a number of academic organizations. I almost hesitate to name them because I'll be sure to leave some out, but organizations such as Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Applied Physics Laboratory of the University of Washington, [the] University of Alaska in Fairbanks, just as an example, and by no means an exclusive list.

We are working very closely with the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the deputations. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy Amanda Dory was instrumental in her leadership in ensuring the Quadrennial Defense Review addressed both the climate change and energy issues. We work with the Joint Staff, and we have been working with the Department of Interior and Department of Energy. Department of Energy Under Secretary for Science Dr. Steven Koonin has been very supportive of our efforts and generous with his guidance. Dr. Ralph Cicerone, president of the National Academy of Sciences and Chair of the National Research Council has been instrumental and helpful. If you add up everybody we have worked with it comes up to about 400 individuals representing over 125 different organizations.

CHIPS: I read that the Navy has many assets that can assist in understanding the changing climate. From a wide array of data-gathering sensors and platforms to supercomputer facilities that process data and create predictions, Navy assets are continuously working to provide comprehensive knowledge of the physical environment. Can you talk more specifically about these assets? Is there enough data to make accurate predictions and recommendations?

Rear Adm. Titley: As I mentioned, we will never get to absolute certainty in climate, but it is also true in weather forecasting, which I have done for about 40 years now. At very high resolutions you never know what it is going to be like in the future. But the world and the United States have provided tremendous contributions to this question. We have more than enough information to make rational decisions that will help us prepare for how climate change is going to affect us in the future.

The Navy has put a number of sensors and satellites up for operational purposes, but it turns out that they can also be used for climate change. Until very recently, the Navy was flying a radio altimeter satellite called GEOSAT Follow-on and that satellite, although not optimized for climate change conditions, helped contribute toward understanding both sea level rise and the warming temperatures and thermal expansion of the ocean.

As you probably know, the Navy is one of the contributors to an organization called the National Ice Center, NIC, and it can be both the National Ice Center and Naval Ice Center. It is located in Suitland, Md., in the greater Washington, D.C., area. It is a partnership between Navy, NOAA and the Coast Guard. What the Navy provides, in addition to over 50 percent of the manpower, is the majority of skilled ice analysts and some of the leadership. Some of the new buoys we now produce can operate in both open water and in the ice. Ten or 15 years ago, buoys would stay on the ice for their entire lifetime. Now many of the buoys that we drop on the ice are probably going to end up in the water. So we design them so that when the Arctic refreezes, most of them will actually pop back up onto the ice. We have worked with the Air National Guard and the Coast Guard to help deploy those buoys.

The data that our ships collect, when it can be declassified, can go into the public record. Again, this data is simply another component of the overall data strategy.

CHIPS: Are you identifying additional data requirements based on the data you have now to fill gaps?

Rear Adm. Titley: That's very true. The scientific community is very confident about the large scale implications of climate change. What I mean by that is really that the global hemispheric scales, the multi-decadal data is very solid. But to paraphrase Tip O'Neill, who said 'All politics is local,' to some degree all weather is local too. What we need, to really inform operational decisions, is to understand what the climate will be like in specific regions of the Earth. What will the climate be in Southeast Asia, in Southwest Asia? How are the rainfall patterns in India and China going to change or are they going to change? Are tropical cyclones going to be more intense, will there be significantly more, or will they be about the same? That’s a debate that is very active in the weather community as we speak.

So understanding the regional implications of climate change — how climate change will impact people, the Navy, and national security — on seasonal scales of one, two or three years are still open scientific questions. Not a week goes by and you can read that a researcher has figured out another component [to climate change data]. But I think there is still a lot to learn in these details. I want to stress that we understand that on a large scale the climate is clearly changing and will continue to do so unless humankind as a whole takes a different course with respect to carbon dioxide emissions.

CHIPS: About 5 percent of the Arctic has been charted. Has there been any discussion about charting areas of the Arctic that are navigable during the summer months?

Rear Adm. Titley: It absolutely needs to be done; it's very important. As you said only 5 percent of the Arctic has been charted to any kind of modern standard, and by that I mean a survey ship that has a global positioning system and multi-beam sonar. Fortunately for America, the United States Coast Guard Cutter Healy is not only a very capable icebreaker, but it is an exceptionally capable oceanographic and hydrographic survey ship. Healy has been able to work in the marginal ice zone, and the ice zone itself, and has taken some great measurements of the United States' extended continental shelf areas beyond 200 miles off the North Alaskan coast. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the Healy works with the Canadian Coast Guard Cutter Louis S. St-Laurent, and this has been a tremendous partnership between Canada and the United States.

I had the opportunity to ride Healy last summer for a couple days and talk to the skipper, and he told me that when you have two icebreakers working together, not only do you collect better quality oceanographic and hydrographic data, but because you have another very capable ship nearby, you will take your vessel into survey places that you otherwise just wouldn’t take it because of dangerous ice conditions. You just wouldn’t put your vessel in a situation where you couldn't get out. But if you have a friend operating nearby, it really helps. So Healy and Louis St-Laurent have done good things.

In addition to that, you probably know that NOAA actually has the authority and responsibility for mapping United States coastal areas out to the exclusive economic zone which is about 200 miles away from the coast. We have been partnering with NOAA on a plan to start working in parts of the northern Bering Sea and Bering Strait as early as fall 2010. Those plans are not final so I can't confirm them, but I am quite optimistic that we will start working again with our NOAA partners to start mapping out more of the waters in what will likely become a critical strait for our country within a few decades.

CHIPS: You mentioned how climate change may affect the shipbuilding plan, but it could also affect fielded shipboard systems. I read something recently that said it could have an effect on ballistic missile defense. Is it too early to make these kinds of assessments?

Rear Adm. Titley: Absolutely not. In our Arctic and Climate Change Roadmaps you will see that we have something called a Capabilities Based Assessment. Basically, this is the ability to holistically look at these types of warfighting capabilities to understand which ones will be affected by changes in either the Arctic or changes in climate in general, and which ones may have much lesser implications.

I'll give you just one example. We are really quite confident that although the ocean is changing, it is not going to have much impact on our sonars. In submarine warfare the primary way we find submarines is with acoustics, so sonar will put noise in the water and basically listen for a return [ping] on a submarine. Almost half the carbon dioxide we are putting into the atmosphere is being absorbed by the ocean, and through a series of chemical reactions the net result is that the ocean becomes more acidic. I call that the silent partner to global warming.

Some people say that a more acidic ocean will change the way that sound is absorbed, and that is true. But at the frequencies where we use sonar, the change relative to all the other variables in anti-submarine warfare is actually quite minor. This is one area where thinking climate change through indicates that we probably don’t have to spend money [on sonar changes].

But your comments on ballistic missile defense, how radars and communications gear would work, let's say up in the Arctic regions, are examples of things that are absolutely not too early to look at, and these are the things that the Capabilities Based Assessment will be examining.

CHIPS: There are many different opinions regarding global warming and climate change. For example, some say that the Arctic Sea ice didn't melt as much in 2009 as it did in the previous two years. Some scientists say that changes in sea ice thickness are not due to climate change but changes in sea winds or as a result of the natural cyclical warming and cooling of the Earth over thousands of years. Are these possibilities?

Rear Adm. Titley: All of the above is true, and this is what makes understanding climate change difficult when we are trying to understand it on a relatively small scale, for example, in the Arctic and in time scales of a period of years. Simultaneously, understanding is complex, fascinating and sometimes frustrating because, just as you have identified, many, many components are all working on the natural environment at the same time. Some of these components all pull in the same direction and others push against each other or oppose each other.

You are right on the Arctic. One of the ways that you remove ice from the Arctic Ocean is that you actually blow it out. Sometimes, the winds will do this for two or three years out of every one or two decades. The winds in the Arctic Ocean set up so that ice is actually blown out into the Atlantic, and the ice goes down the east coast of Greenland.

What we are seeing though, when we take a look at the Arctic Ocean in terms of the extent of coverage and the thickness, is that the number has been on a steady downtrend for over 40 years. The Applied Physics Lab of the University of Washington has a great graphic (Figure 1) on its website that is very telling. There are variations — there could be a five-year cycle, 10-year cycle — but superimposed on that is this very long-term decline.

You are right, Sharon, there are natural forces working in this. There is something called the Milankovitch cycle. It is about a 100,000-year cycle, and in that cycle the Earth should be cooling. If there were absolutely no human interaction, the Earth would be cooling. But what we have superimposed on that is the greenhouse gases which tend to warm the Earth, the pollution humans put into the atmosphere, and the aerosols which cool the Earth. There are all these competing influences. But science is pretty clear that the greenhouse gases in the decadal and larger time scales are becoming the predominant influence, and that is why we are seeing this overall warming of the globe.

CHIPS: There are many climate change skeptics. Lord Christopher Monckton, former science adviser to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, compared melting sea ice to ice cubes melting in a glass of water — they don’t make the water in the glass overflow. Likewise, Monckton said melting sea ice does not affect sea level. But isn’t there already conclusive evidence that sea levels are rising?

Rear Adm. Titley: Yes, with respect to the sea level question you are absolutely right — the sea levels are rising. But believe it or not, Lord Monckton is also right. The sea level rise is not a function of the melting ice that is currently floating in the Arctic. You can do a simple experiment. On a summer day, like we are having right now in D.C., take your glass of ice water and make a little mark, and watch the ice melt. You will see that it' within the thickness of your mark, the level hasn’t changed. What is changing that I believe Lord Monckton did not address in his statement are two things. One is that the ocean, as it warms, actually expands. We all know from our basic science classes that gas expands as it gets warmer, and it turns out that water also expands as it gets warmer. Now it is not a huge expansion, but think about how big the ocean is. One of the things that I don’t think a lot of people understand is that 80 percent of the heat in the atmosphere-ocean system is actually in the ocean. The ocean is this huge, huge heat sink so ultimately a lot of the warming ends up in the ocean.

The other cause of sea level rise is that the glaciers have been melting, and of course the glaciers were not floating, so that is water that was not in the ocean that is added. What is of more concern to me is not so much the glaciers around Alaska or South America, but the ice sheet on Greenland. There are several independent scientific data sets that show that the amount of ice on Greenland is increasingly ending up in the water.

Some of the scientists from Woods Hole have really started to understand what is going on, along with Dr. Richard Alley from Penn State. It is a fascinating combination of glaciology (ice sheet stability, paleoclimates from ice cores) and oceanography.

Think of those ice fields like the flying buttresses on a medieval cathedral — that's what those glaciers were doing going down the Atlantic — they were grounded on the bottom of the ocean. As relatively warmer water gets up into the coast of Greenland the bottoms of those glaciers are melting. So what had been grounded into the seabed is now free floating. In any medieval cathedral, if you remove the flying buttresses the walls start spreading out — and that is what is happening to the Greenland ice sheet. It is starting to spread out and that means it gets into the water at a faster rate.

We are increasingly concerned that the sea level rise by the end of the 21st century may be on the order of 1 to 2 meters, so that would be about 3 to 7 feet in sea level rise. As a frame of reference, sea level rise in the 20th century was 20 centimeters or about 8 inches. So we are looking at a sea level rise between 5 to 10 times [greater than] what we saw in the last century.

Do the arithmetic: 20 centimeters divided by 100 years is roughly 2 millimeters a year. We are already seeing sea level rise right now at the rate of somewhere between 3 and 4 millimeters per year. So already in the year 2010 we can see that sea level rise is coming up roughly twice the rate of the previous century. This is going to be a big deal, not only for the Navy, but for many, many people who live in low-lying areas.

CHIPS: Can you talk about the Climate Change Roadmap?

Rear Adm. Titley: It is really quite similar to the layout of the Arctic Roadmap. We want to think through all the implications of climate change as they are related to national security. We will look at some of our overseas bases and places that we use with our allies. As an example, Diego Garcia is quite a low-lying island.

There may be some interesting geopolitical issues with sea level rise. Islands such as the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea and the Paracel Islands are claimed by five or six countries. They are low lying, and if they go under how does that change the dynamics of those disputes? Does it make the dispute go away if there is no land anymore? Or if one or more countries sort of piled rocks on top of the islands faster than the sea level rises to make an artificial island, can they claim exclusive economic zone [rights]. I don't know.

We want to think through these kinds of things so that the Navy is not caught by surprise. Using the best science that we can, we are going to look at scenarios. For example, if the rainfall patterns and distribution changes, especially in Asia where there are so many people living, what will be the impact? We will continue to work with the scientists in this country and other countries who are studying ocean acidification. We believe we have identified some things that are not going to be a big deal with acidification, but how will the living marine ecosystem respond? It’s just unknown right now.

If the marine ecosystem does adapt and we keep the species and diversity that we have that will be very good. But what if it doesn’t respond that way, and significant fisheries and shellfisheries collapse? There are about 1 billion people in the world today that get their primary protein from the sea, and if that source is lost, it could become a very big issue. We need to understand how that could potentially impact national security. Will it exacerbate existing instabilities? Is there anything that we can do?

CHIPS: You mentioned the dispute over the Spratly Islands and there are other land disputes as well. I noticed that the Navy recommends ratification of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea Treaty. Could ratification be a stabilizing factor?

Rear Adm. Titley: Absolutely. CNO, in his testimony to Congress earlier this year, once again reiterated the Navy's support of and belief in the importance of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. Every Chief of Naval Operations for the past seven or eight years has gone to the Congress and testified to that effect. Secretary Clinton and NOAA Administrator Dr. Jane Lubchenco have testified that accession to Law of the Sea is important. Obviously, the Navy is a part of the executive branch of the government, and it is up to the White House and president to work with the Congress to tee up the legislation.

CHIPS: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Rear Adm. Titley: I appreciate the opportunity that you are giving the Navy to help us get the word out that Adm. Roughead sees climate change in general, and the Arctic specifically, as long term but very important challenges. We want to address these challenges in a timely fashion so that they do not become crises. I appreciate Adm. Roughead's leadership and vision. It is always easy in any organization to be consumed with the problem of the moment. These are not problems of the moment, but I would argue they are the challenges of the 21st century. We can start the serious thinking that will result in smart choices in our investment decisions to meet these challenges.

Rear Adm. David W. Titley
Rear Adm. David W. Titley

The Canadian Coast Guard Ship Louis S. St-Laurent makes an approach to the Coast Guard Cutter Healy in the Arctic Ocean Sept. 5, 2009. The two ships are taking part in a multi-year, multi-agency Arctic survey that will help define the Arctic continental shelf. This photo won first place in the Public Affairs Specialist category of the 2009 Coast Guard Photo Contest. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer Patrick Kelley.
The Canadian Coast Guard Ship Louis S. St-Laurent makes an approach to the Coast Guard Cutter Healy in the Arctic Ocean Sept. 5, 2009. The two ships are taking part in a multi-year, multi-agency Arctic survey that will help define the Arctic continental shelf. This photo won first place in the Public Affairs Specialist category of the 2009 Coast Guard Photo Contest. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer Patrick Kelley.

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