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Nebraska flooding shows (again) how extreme weather can threaten national security

Catastrophic flooding in Nebraska has wiped out roads, overtopped dams, and left at least a third of the Offutt Air Force Base submerged, highlighting the ongoing threat that extreme weather poses to both people’s lives, and national security.

A massive winter storm created a “bomb cyclone” over parts of the country last week, and dumped snow and rain on Nebraska. Rain slicked off frozen ground, snow melted, and ice thawed on rivers — kicking off devastating floods that killed at least two people in the state and destroyed hundreds of homes. “This was a monster, no question about it,” Greg Carbin at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Weather Prediction Center told the Omaha World-Herald.

Now, the Omaha World-Herald reports flooding of at least a third of Offutt Air Force Base, including part of the runway and at least 30 buildings. The floods forced aircraft to evacuate, but the headquarters of US Strategic Command, which oversees the US nuclear arsenal, remained unflooded, according to the World Herald. This kind of extreme flooding threatens military readiness and, in this case, our nuclear capabilities, according to Francesco Femia, CEO of The Center for Climate and Security.

Officials couldn’t tell the World-Herald when operations were expected to go back to normal. “It is extremely clear that we face a grand challenge,” Colonel Michael Manion, 55th Wing Commander, said in a Facebook post. The base has been hit by extreme weather before, when a tornado whipped through the base in June 2017. The twister caused $20 million worth of damage, but, amazingly, no deaths.

Offutt is the latest in a string of military installations to be hit by extreme weather, Weather.com reports. Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina was badly damaged after Hurricane Florence struck the region in September 2018, for example. The storm led to a massive 84,000 gallon sewage spill on the base and damaged buildings so badly that repairing and replacing them is expected to cost some $3.6 billion dollars, according to Marine Corps Times. A month later, Hurricane Michael devastated the Florida panhandle — including Tyndall Air Force Base, causing billions of dollars in damage.

There’s growing evidence that climate change is increasing hurricane intensity and worsening rainfall. But there’s more debate about whether, and how, climate change affects this kind of winter storm, which underwent a significant enough pressure drop to become what’s known as a “bomb cyclone” over Colorado. “It’s clear that additional heat and water vapor in the atmosphere are providing more energy and moisture for storms to work with,” Jennifer Francis, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center in Florida, tells The Verge in an email. “What isn’t clear is whether changes in the jet stream are making bomb cyclones more likely, and whether storms are already becoming either more frequent or stronger.”

Still, extreme weather events are happening more often, according to Francis. “It’s likely that climate change is playing a major role in that increase,” she says. It’s a threat that the defense and intelligence communities have been warning about. A Department of Defense report from January 2019 warns about the risks of “climate-related events” such as “recurrent flooding.” And the Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community also warns that climate hazards — including extreme weather and floods — are “threatening infrastructure, health, and water and food security.”

The latest damage to Offutt shows why national security risk assessments include threats of extreme weather and climate change. “That’s why we need to let the US military do its job in assessing and dealing with climate change-related threats,” Femia tells The Verge in an email. “It’s critical to our national security.”

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