By C. Todd Lopez
WASHINGTON (April 21, 2023) -- The Department of Defense is one of the largest owners and managers of land in the United States. And that land is likely to be affected by changes in the climate -- including the effects of flooding, extreme temperatures and drought.
To prepare for those possibilities and to build resilience, the department has developed the DOD Climate Assessment Tool. DCAT, as it's called, is a web-based tool informed by volumes of data from global climate models, historical observations, and flood modeling that can help the department prepare for climate hazards at over 2,300 DOD locations around the world.
Recently, the department expanded DCAT to include over 400 locations outside the United States. But also, the department has been developing a separate capability, the Climate Assessment Tool, or CAT, that will be provided to several partner nations to give those countries access to an assessment tool similar to DCAT to enable their own climate change exposure analyses.
Giving partner nations access to CAT enhances national resilience against climate change by enabling the same quality in our partners and allies, said Ross E. Alter, a Research Meteorologist who helped develop both DCAT and CAT. Alter is on detail to the DOD Climate Action Team, and regularly works at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers -- Engineer Research and Development Center -- Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL).
"Climate change is a global issue," Alter said. "Because of that, our national resilience is linked to global resilience."
Customized versions of CAT will be provided to Australia, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Republic of Korea, and the United Kingdom. The effort is part of a commitment Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III made to President Biden in 2021, Alter said, to provide this tool to several interested partner nations.
"We feel that sharing such a tool with our partners and allies will be able to shore up their resilience against climate change, and by helping our partners and allies to be more resilient, it also, by extension, would increase our own resilience against climate change," Alter said.
The main difference between DCAT and CAT, Alter said, is that CAT operates at a "watershed level," rather than an installation level. This allows users to perform an assessment anywhere within a country. CAT also uses globally available data sources to ensure coverage of partner nations. A "watershed" is the area of land associated with a river or body of water that drains into that river or body of water.
Users of DCAT and CAT can range from installation-level engineers and planners to senior leaders who need to have information for more strategic decision-making.
The strategic-level user is someone who is interested in evaluating climate exposure across a group of installations to make climate-informed decisions, said Brantley A. Thames. "If you had a question, such as what are the ten most exposed installations to drought, DCAT provides that capability. It's great for your senior leaders who need to make large-scale decisions."
Like Alter, Thames is also employed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, as a hydraulic engineer, and he works with the DOD Climate Action Team. Thames said that in addition to strategic leaders, there are also site-specific users for CAT and DCAT.
"That's really important as we plan training activities to understand what are going to be the threats to our soldiers, and what are going to be the threats to our equipment and facilities on installations," Thames said.
Tricia Nelsen is a research physical scientist, also with CRREL, and has a background in geospatial mapping and data science. Currently, she's stationed at Fort Wainwright, Alaska, on detail to the DOD Climate Action Team.
Nelsen said a user of DCAT might use the tool to plan where a new building might go, for instance, or see whether it makes sense to put money into modernizing an existing facility given projected changes in climate.
"One really useful aspect of the tool is that we provide flood maps for riverine flooding and coastal flooding with sea level rise," Nelsen said. "We can go into the tool, look at a location that you're thinking about updating a building and see, depending on greenhouse gas emissions, if this building might be flooded due to sea level rise, and it doesn't make sense to invest our money into updating that building right now. Maybe it makes sense to move it or build a new building a mile away where it's not going to be in the floodplain. That's a really useful piece of information that this tool gives us."
Nelsen, Alter and Thames all said working on the DOD Climate Action Team has been a great experience for them, and that they've been excited to contribute to the DCAT and CAT projects.
"This has been a completely different experience for me," Nelsen said. "I've supported projects before, research projects, but I've never been responsible for one. And being responsible for CAT has been a tall order, but it's been incredibly rewarding. I've learned how to project manage, I've learned how to manage my time a lot better and learned how to reach out for different kinds of help from different people."
Alter said his work so far on the DOD Climate Action Team has helped him better understand what he's capable of -- especially in a team environment.
"It's been one of the biggest professional challenges of my career, but it's also been very rewarding because I really think that it's helped to expand my worldview," Alter said. "And it's also helped to make me more appreciative of what I'm actually capable of doing and handling: these kinds of larger projects, with the help of our teammates. It's been a really great process, and it's helped me to develop as a professional."
Thames said the DOD Climate Action Team has been successful in its work because he sees that team members are committed to the effort.
"Everyone on the team is committed to it, they are reliable, they are committed to figure it out, whether they know it or not," Thames said. "But the other really nice aspect of this team is, it's not just hydraulic engineers like [me]. It's meteorologists, planners, it's regulatory folks. We have all these different expertise areas, and we all kind of get to represent that on the team."
Bringing all those areas of expertise together, Thames said, means not only is the team more successful, but everyone on the team becomes better by working with others who have experience in other areas.
"We're gaining experience in their areas of expertise while they're gaining them in our own," he said. "It just makes us more well-rounded public servants at the end of the day."