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My Heart-Stopping Ride Aboard the Navy's Great Green Fleet

With Washington frozen solid on climate, the Navy is breaking the ice.

The Navy worries that a growing Asian demand for oil will inevitably drive prices higher. A newly seagoing China—Beijing just landed its first jet on its new aircraft carrier—along with the expected gas rush in the South China Sea, have reportedly focused the roving US military eye on a few unlikely morsels of sand barely rising above the waves off Australia's northwestern coast: the Cocos (Keeling) Islands. This Australian archipelago boasts a total landmass "about 24 times the size of The Mall in Washington, DC," reports the cia World Factbook. Tiny, but strategically placed to spy on the 1.7-mile-wide choke point of the Strait of Malacca, through which 15.2 million barrels of oil flowed daily in 2011. The United States is reported to be vetting the Cocos as an advanced spy base for Global Hawk drones, and maybe more. The latest Australian defense review suggests upgrading the islands' single airfield to support aerial refueling tankers and "unrestricted" anti-submarine aircraft and drones.

Clearly the great green war game is still a hybrid: defending fossil fuels—and those who get access to them—while charging full steam toward alternatives.

I've never been to the Pentagon before. It reminds me of a Stanley Kubrick set, the surreal love child of Dr. Strangelove and 2001: A Space Odyssey: miles of corridors, some with embedded sparkle confetti, miles of closed doors. And then, oddly, a New Balance store, an eyeglasses store, a jewelry store featuring engagement rings, plus Starbucks, Subway, McDonald's, and Dunkin' Donuts. Roughly 23,000 people work in what is one of the world's largest office buildings, some on one of the world's most expensive problems: the effects of global warming on warfighting capability.

Naval Station Norfolk, the Atlantic fleet headquarters, sits in the crosshairs of ocean waters climbing a quarter inch a year.

"Since we know climate change is not only coming but it's here," says Rear Adm. David Titley, a meteorologist and physical oceanographer by training, "the US Navy needs to figure out what we're going to do about it." A fit Navy geek who bikes to the Pentagon most mornings, the admiral looks cooped up in the tiny office assigned to him as the oceanographer and navigator of the Navy and director of Task Force Climate Change. (After this interview he moved to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.) The task force mission "to address the naval implications of a changing Arctic and global environment" was born from the Navy's examination of the scientific evidence, from which they concluded: "Climate change is a national security challenge with strategic implications...[affecting] US military installations and access to natural resources worldwide."

One issue bearing down fast is rising sea levels. Take Naval Station Norfolk, the Atlantic fleet headquarters and the world's largest naval station, strategically built a century ago on the low-lying Virginia Tidewater. Today it sits in the crosshairs of ocean waters climbing a quarter inch a year. That's among Earth's fastest rates of sea level rise and the fastest in the United States outside of Louisiana. Moreover, the ocean along the entire East Coast north of Cape Hatteras—a 620-mile stretch home to nine other naval bases—is rising at three to four times the global average, probably because warming ocean waters are redrawing the larger circulation of the Atlantic.

Offshore, nobody moves faster than the US Navy. But onshore, political aversion to the C-word has slowed its efforts. "The Australians have already assessed the effects of climate and sea level rise on their defense establishments," Titley says. "And that's something we've got to do." In 2008, the National Intelligence Council reported more than 30 US military installations already facing elevated risks from rising seas, though the actual number is believed to be much higher and the list remains classified. Currently the DOD is investigating how a warming and expanding ocean will affect a mere five of hundreds of Navy, Marine Corps, Army, and Air Force bases, including Norfolk. One thing's for sure: There won't be any universal rescue plan. Each base responds differently to neighborhood conditions: bathymetry, tides, winds, river flows. Each has unique frailties: barrier islands, hurricane paths, El Niño effects, coastal erosion, saltwater intrusion. The costs won't be limited to military real estate either. "Our bases aren't islands," Titley says. "Our sailors and civilians live in nearby communities where services—power, freshwater, electricity, internet, sewage—are also vulnerable to rising sea levels. When we consider mitigation and adaptation, we've got to work all that out, too."

Like sea level rise, the Navy's problems are global, since it has bases in 12 nations, including overseas islands. The coral atoll of Diego Garcia, for instance, the core of US spy missions in the Indian Ocean since the 1960s, rises less than 10 feet above sea level in most places, and the Navy may be forced to abandon it to the waves when the lease runs out in 2016. Its potential replacement is Australia's Cocos Islands, where the highest point rises only 16 feet above the waterline. Decisions on whether to retrofit, adapt, close, or move installations will tax the Navy's mental and financial bandwidth for the foreseeable future. "I call it the Goldilocks strategy," Titley says. "We don't want to get caught behind climate change and sea level rise because then we'll be forced to spend a lot of money quickly, and we don't always do that wisely. Conversely, in these fiscal conditions, it's not wise to spend money too soon either."

"The US Navy is inadequately prepared to conduct sustained maritime operations in the Arctic." It has no icebreakers, or bases within 1,000 miles of the Arctic Ocean.

Meanwhile, the Navy has sailed into dire straits in the climate battlefront they deem most critical: the Arctic. Navy submarines crossing the North Pole were first to notice an ominous thinning of sea ice in the 1990s. Yet it took more than a decade for the Naval War College to game Arctic scenarios, with bleak results: "The US Navy is inadequately prepared to conduct sustained maritime operations in the Arctic [due to] an inability to reliably perform and maintain operations in the austere Arctic environment." The No. 1 problem is that the Navy no longer owns any operational icebreakers, which will be needed even decades into the future, since an "ice-free" Arctic is still susceptible to freezing at any time. The Coast Guard owns one icebreaker, the scientific research cutter Healy (I sailed aboard her last October for an upcoming piece in Mother Jones), which the Navy has been forced to call upon in every Arctic war game scenario to break ice for its warships. The Coast Guard Commandant, Adm. Bob Papp, called the US icebreaking fleet "woefully inadequate" but hoped Congress would fund Obama's $8 million request to develop one new polar-class icebreaker. (It did, but the Russians own six nuclear-powered icebreakers—and are in the process of building the world's largest—plus at least 29 government and commercial diesel-powered icebreaking vessels.) The No. 2 problem is that the Navy no longer owns any ice-hardened surface ships, and retrofitting would run between a quarter and a half of each vessel's cost. Which means no Navy ships are currently even capable of following in an icebreaker's wake. Last but not least, there are no year-round supply lines or naval bases in US territory north of the Aleutian Islands, nearly 1,000 brutal nautical miles from the Arctic Ocean. By any measure the United States is not an Arctic Ocean player.

In the meantime, none of the world's armed forces are wasting time doubting global warming, and all the Arctic nations, plus others, including China, are ramping up their focus on the far north. "I've got to thank the Russians for planting that flag on the seafloor of the North Pole in 2007," Titley says. "That got Washington's attention more than any think tank ever could." It got oilman George W. Bush, in one of his last acts in office in 2009, to sign two presidential directives acknowledging "the effects of climate change and increasing human activity in the Arctic region."

What's at stake? The US Geological Survey calculates that the Arctic holds 25 percent of Earth's undiscovered and recoverable conventional petroleum products: 16 percent of its oil, 30 percent of its natural gas, and 26 percent of its natural gas liquids, with about 84 percent of those resources lying offshore. Those fossil goodies will be claimed by whichever military gets them first. And some have better access than others. "The Russian coastline," Titley says, "covers half the Arctic coast, with three Russian rivers each the size and scope of the Mississippi flowing into it. It's like the Gulf of Mexico on steroids." A fifth of Russia's GDP and 22 percent of its exports already come from north of the Arctic Circle, most from energy production. Russia's then-deputy prime minister, Sergei Ivanov, voiced the fears of many nations, Arctic and non-Arctic, when he said: "If we don't develop the Arctic, it will be developed without us."

"If you look at the Arctic nations' top-level strategy," adds Titley, "it's to be safe, stable, and secure. No one sees conflict in anyone's interest." That seems an ahistorical, rosy assessment, and indeed territorial disputes among the eight Arctic nations are blooming as fast as plankton in the ice-free waters, including the unresolved boundary between Russia and the United States over the 58-mile-wide Bering Strait. "Whenever the shipping routes across the Arctic open, the Navy will focus on the Bering Strait," Titley says. "It's the Arctic version of the Strait of Hormuz, through which the fossil fuels of the north will flow south."

It's clear the superpowers of the 21st century will grow from the north down. So picture this not-so-futuristic scenario: a biofueled US Navy defending a critical fossil fuel choke point in melting Arctic waters along disputed shorelines receding under rising sea levels while fossil fuel booty unburied by climate change is burned to make more climate change. War gaming nature. Now that's going to be a wild ride.

My night aboard the USS Nimitz gets me a bunk in a DV (distinguished visitor) stateroom called the Texas Cabin. I'm given a standard hotel-type key card by sailors working in, no kidding, Hotel Services. My cabin is spacious, the bunk seductively comfortable. At the end of the day I'm handed off from a weary male lieutenant to two female petty officers, MC1 Sarah Murphy and MC2 Nichelle Whitfield, who are clearly amazed at the DV digs. "Wow," they say, admiring the brushed stainless steel walls and inlaid floor. They live in spartan enlisted berthing areas with triple-tier bunks cloaked in perpetual darkness because of round-the-clock duty watches and daytime sleepers. "You have a curfew," they warn me, "at 2130 hours." They look exhausted. RIMPAC and the Great Green Fleet demo have burned all their fuel.

They take me to dinner in the enlisted mess, a crowded, noisy cafeteria, where we hand over our trays for glops of desiccated frozen vegetable medley, naked fusilli noodles, and slabs of corned beef. Since there aren't any clean knives, we retreat to a table armed only with forks. I try to cut the meat with a fork. I work hard at it and get nowhere. MC1 Murphy is genteelly tearing at it with her hands. Okay. But I can't tear it, not even a little. "I'm gonna use my teeth," I say. "Go for it," Murphy says. "Whatever works," Whitfield says. The slab looks uncannily like the sole of a shoe. I put it between my teeth and yank. I give it everything I've got. But it's so tough that not one bite makes it down my gullet. New respect is born for those who survive eight-month deployments at sea.

Murphy and Whitfield ask me about the story I'm working on. I tell them about the melting Arctic and rising sea levels, fossil fuels, war, climate change, and the positive feedback loops between them all. Their eyes grow wide. The Navy plans for everything, the admirals all tell me, but not apparently for their petty officers to know much of anything about the big problems that may well define their careers and their lives and the lives of their children. Of course, the Navy's not alone in that strategy. And maybe it's not the absolute shitshow of a tragedy that it seems. I look around the cafeteria. Sailors large and small are doing battle with their corned beef and pulling off what I couldn't: slaying it. I laugh. Our nation, our species, is nothing if not boss of the last-minute improvisation of the save-our-ass variety.

The next day I'm strapped in my seat in the same COD by the same window. All the dread I should have felt prior to the outbound flight but didn't has taken hold of me now. I realize my entire future hinges on getting shot from a catapult at 165 miles an hour. "Wait," I say, grabbing the same aircrewman who strapped me in back in Honolulu, "what am I supposed to do?" He explains—"lean forward into your harness, tuck your chin to your chest, cross your arms"—then sees the worried look in my eyes and smiles. "Don't worry. It's gonna be fun."

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Front page illustration: Tim O'Brien. Support for this story was provided by a grant from the Puffin Foundation Investigative Journalism project.