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ERDC brings history, experience to the crucial fight against climate change

The U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center's Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory Director Dr. Joseph Corriveau is interviewed by ERDC’s Shelley Tingle during ERDC’s LinkedIn Live event in June.

Posted on July 20, 2021

In early June, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released a report showing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere had reached levels not seen in more than 4 million years. The report has brought more weight to the emphasis President Biden’s administration has placed on a “climate crisis that threatens our people and communities, public health and economy, and, starkly, our ability to live on the planet Earth.”

In response, engineers at the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) are leading the charge in researching climate change and its negative effects.

Dr. Joseph Corriveau, director of ERDC’s Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL) in Hanover, New Hampshire, said during a recent ERDC Live discussion on climate change, that while the scientific community agrees human activity has caused an increase in production of greenhouse gases and the climate change stressors that come with those gases, researchers like those at ERDC must continue to build society’s understanding.

ERDC Live is a monthly series broadcast on ERDC’s LinkedIn page featuring interviews with ERDC leaders, researchers and guests on topics of interest.

“There are clearly a lot of misconceptions [in the public] regarding the topic of climate change. There’s also a bit of controversy over to what level human activity is responsible for climate change,” Corriveau said. “What I will say, it is wonderful to be part of an organization that has been conducting research literally for decades on this topic. It is also wonderful to be part of an organization where one of our five strategic goals is to promote understanding.

“I think part of our role at ERDC is to promote understanding so that policy makers can make informed decisions based on science.”

Given the vital research role ERDC plays within the U.S. Army and the Department of Defense, gaining a better of understanding of climate change and its effects is of paramount importance, as is developing ways to adapt to the changes it forces. Given its historical research experience and state-of-the-art capabilities and facilities, ERDC is well-positioned to lead in climate change research.

In addition to being CRREL’s director, Corriveau was also tabbed by ERDC Director Dr. David Pittman to lead a team studying climate change and its effects. This team combines ERDC’s seven laboratories, leveraging the weight of the facilities and capabilities of world-class engineers and scientists.

ERDC has continued to expand its climate change research, understanding the United States suffers more than $10 billion in damages from more severe and frequent natural disasters, including tropical storms, hurricanes, wildfires and more.

In leveraging its extensive history in modeling, ERDC is focused on developing technology to better forecast, model and monitor climate change, as well as efforts to make climate science more actionable. This work has already been applied to comprehensive coastal studies in the north and south Atlantic, as well as along the coastlines of Texas and Louisiana. Among the many areas cited in the administration’s January executive order on climate change, President Biden identifies the effect of climate change as a major risk to national security, a point Pittman emphasized during the first ERDC Live session on LinkedIn in May. Pittman called climate change and its impact an existential threat to the security of our nation and world, a point further supported by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III.

“The important thing is that we realize that our climate is changing and that this is very important to us on many different levels. I will cite, for example, the Secretary of Defense, Secretary Austin, who said that climate change is making the world more unsafe and we need to act,” Corriveau said. “What he means by that is as the sea levels rise, as communities and societies are challenged with their sources of food, their sources of water, and being displaced, be it drought or flooding, that is going to put stress on societies, which can lead to challenges for national security.”

For decades, beginning in the 1960s, CRREL removed ice core samples from glaciers in Greenland, including some that were a mile long, that helped provide insight into the warming and cooling cycles the Earth has experienced for thousands of years. Corriveau said the samples showed that when the Earth experienced warmer temperatures, there was an increase in greenhouse gases. When the Earth cooled, the amount of greenhouse gases was lower.

In a strategy released in January by the U.S. Army titled “Regaining Arctic Dominance,” military leaders cite the impact climate change is having in the Arctic and the importance of incorporating a better understanding of those changes in dealing with evolving national security threats, primarily from a more aggressive adversarial influence in the region.

Specifically, the strategy focuses on the assumption of more control over shipping in the Arctic region as new and expanding shipping lanes are created when Arctic ice melts.

“Decreasing sea ice will lead to new routes opening in the future and may become an area of contention as Arctic nations attempt to exert control over key sea lanes.”

According to data shared in the Army’s strategy, NOAA reports year-round ice cover in the Arctic Ocean fell by 11.5 percent each decade between 1979 and 2012. But, that rate of decline increased, reaching 13.3 percent by 2017, indicating that the pace of ice decline is speeding up rather than holding steady.

As part of ERDC’s effort to build better understanding, Corriveau said research must begin from a starting point of agreement, that the “well-accepted phenomena” of how an increase in carbon emissions and greenhouse gases in the atmosphere changes Earth’s climate.

“To build upon the connection between climate change and the warming planet, I offer the following,” he said. “Back in the 70s, when I was in school, the carbon dioxide level in our atmosphere was maybe 330 parts per million; today we are over 400 parts per million. So clearly the carbon dioxide, the methane gases, these greenhouse gases are increasing and as the heat rises from our planet it does get held in place.

“Then it comes down to, which I think is the controversial point, is it a result of human activity? What scientists have done is – they’re like accountants – they account for where the greenhouse gases are coming from, and when they do the math, it looks like it is coming from us.”

To view the full discussion with Dr. Corriveau on ERDC’s role in climate change research, visit the U.S. Army Engineer and Research Development Center’s page on LinkedIn. You can also view May’s LinkedIn Live event with ERDC Director Dr. David Pittman, which sets out an overview of ERDC’s focus on climate change. 


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