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Hurricanes like Ian are a growing national security threat — we need better prediction

Hurricane Ian
Photo by GIORGIO VIERA/AFP via Getty Images
Residents inspect damage to a marina as boats are partially submerged in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian in Fort Myers, Florida, on September 29, 2022. – Hurricane Ian left much of coastal southwest Florida in darkness early on Thursday, bringing “catastrophic” flooding that left officials readying a huge emergency response to a storm of rare intensity. The National Hurricane Center said the eye of the “extremely dangerous” hurricane made landfall just after 3:00 pm (1900 GMT) on the barrier island of Cayo Costa, west of the city of Fort Myers. (Photo by Giorgio VIERA / AFP) (Photo by GIORGIO VIERA/AFP via Getty Images)

As Hurricane Ian, now downgraded to a tropical storm, continues to crash into central Florida, the massive impact of such storms on our nation’s military is impossible to overlook. The entire state of Florida remains in a state of emergency, while defense assets as diverse as U.S. Coast Guard stations, Air Force aircraft squadrons, Navy ships and the National Guard have taken extensive preparations.

On Monday, the commander of MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa ordered an installation-wide evacuation. No doubt, this was a prudent measure at the time. Tampa Mayor Jane Castor warned residents to prepare for 10 to 15 feet of storm surge in Tampa Bay, and the forecast by the National Hurricane Center called for Ian to intensify to Category 4, with the most dangerous part of the storm — the right front quadrant — making a direct hit on the city. Such caution was also warranted by the unique threat that Ian posed for Tampa Bay and the fact thar a population of over 3 million was at risk.

The evacuation of MacDill is significant because of the strategic importance of two tenant commands on the base. The U.S. Central Command is responsible for defending and promoting U.S. interests in 20 nations in the Middle East, Central and South Asia, as well as the strategic waterways that surround them. Meanwhile, the U.S. Special Operations Command has the global mission of overseeing the special operations capabilities of the various military branches and coordinating their training, strategy, interoperability and operations. The former, for example, ran the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, while the latter planned and executed such high visibility activities as the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden.

However, when Hurricane Ian made landfall, it appeared that the MacDill evacuation may not have been necessary. Subsequent forecasts for Ian’s track steered more south and east toward Lee County. Although Tampa was still pounded by hammering rain and wind, the storm surge warning for Tampa dropped to 4 to 6 feet, and parts of the bay even saw water blown outward to sea due to the offshore direction of the winds.

This is not to dismiss the outstanding performance of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Weather Service (NWS) in preparing the nation for Hurricane Ian and other deadly storms like it. Rather, the point is to illustrate the critical importance of precise prediction in weather and climate. In this case, we see that small errors in the hurricane forecast track may have led to the unnecessary evacuation of thousands of people from a DOD installation. Such a miscalculation disrupts training, reduces readiness and imposes significant costs. Avoiding errors in prediction are also a critical requirement for operational safety and effectiveness.

While the Biden administration’s DOD has developed a detailed plan for climate adaptation, it lacks the necessary focus on this fundamental capability. Nevertheless, the Department can immediately correct this by seizing the following opportunities in NOAA, Navy and Air Force programs for numerical weather prediction (NWP):

  1. Acquiring more datasets with the potential to improve tropical cyclone and other severe weather models. Data from satellites, ocean buoys and drones are increasingly available in the private sector and can bypass the delays incurred by federal government acquisition processes.
  2. Advancing research into the complex process of assimilating these new data types for NWP.  Here, new techniques involving artificial intelligence and machine learning are showing great promise in improving forecast skill.
  3. Accelerating implementation of NOAA’s Earth Prediction Innovation Center (EPIC). This effort is designed to dramatically increase contributions from the research community and speed their transition to operations.

Tropical cyclones like Hurricane Ian are undeniably the most severe climatic phenomena that can impact the U.S. military. In the 2021 DOD Climate Adaptation Plan, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin points to hurricanes “inflicting billions of dollars of damage on facilities that are home to key warfighting capabilities.” He also states that “planning for today and into the future is our business.” If the DOD and its federal partners do not boost their budgets to better predict these extreme events, that business may go bankrupt.

Rear Admiral (ret.) Tim Gallaudet, Ph.D., is the CEO of Ocean STL Consulting, LLC and former deputy administrator at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and assistant secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere. Prior to NOAA, he served for 32 years as an oceanographer in the U.S. Navy, completing his career as the commander of the Navy Meteorology and Oceanography Command and director of the Navy’s Task Force Climate Change. He is also a strategic adviser to the commercial weather company Tomorrow.io.

Tags Climate change extreme weather Florida Hurricane Ian hurricanes Jane Castor Lloyd Austin Military National security

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