Jon White is serving as the President and CEO of the Consortium for Ocean Leadership after coming aboard in September 2015 as the Vice President for Ocean Science and Strategy. Prior to this he had a distinguished 32-year career in the U.S. Navy and retired at the rank of Rear Admiral.White’s passion for the ocean and science began at a very early age as he grew up near Florida’s Gulf coast. He earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Oceanographic Technology from the Florida Institute of Technology, and a Master’s degree in Meteorology and Oceanography from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School.
White had numerous operational assignments at sea and ashore as a Naval Meteorology and Oceanography specialist, culminating in his assignment as Oceanographer and Navigator of the Navy from 2012 to 2015. This position included appointments as the Director of Navy’s Task Force Climate Change, and Navy Deputy to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Christopher P. Skroupa: In honor of today being World Oceans Day, can you start by talking about how the ocean benefits humans? Is it all about beach vacations and shrimp dinners?
Jonathan White: To put it simply, our very survival is linked to that of the ocean. Every second breath you take comes from marine phytoplankton, tiny organisms that create half the world’s oxygen through photosynthesis. So to say that it helps us fulfill the very basic functions necessary for life is an understatement. We also have the ocean to thank for many important processes, like the water cycle and weather patterns. Without ocean currents transporting and mixing warm and cool water around the globe, our planet wouldn’t be able to support life as we know it.
The ocean also provides incredible resources to our nation, like seafood, security, economic growth, and so much more. The ocean provides about 20 percent of the animal protein we depend upon for food and it’s indirectly a source of a lot more – marine products can be found in everything from livestock feed to insecticides and fertilizers. Additionally, the ocean economy, which weathered the recession of 2007-2009 better than the U.S. economy as a whole, contributes $359 billion to our gross domestic product. Finally, the ocean plays a key role in our national security. Our 95,000 mile coastline is our nation’s longest border. Our national security isn’t about fortifying that ocean border but about understanding our ocean to best utilize it. Oceanography was a key determinant in the U.S. Cold War victory due to the knowledge advantage provided to our forward deployed maritime forces, especially our submarines.
Skroupa: Sounds like there are a lot of societal benefits from the ocean and that maintaining the integrity of the ocean system is critical. What is the ocean’s role in weather and climate? What do people most often not know or misunderstand about that relationship? How do changes to the broader ocean-atmosphere system threaten the resources and services we depend on from the sea?
White: I’d say that most people don’t understand the complexities of the ocean-weather-climate relationship, so I’ll start with some definitions. There is a difference between weather and climate, and that difference is time – weather is atmospheric conditions in the short-term (minutes to months), while climate is a description of long-term weather patterns in a particular area. To understand weather, you must understand what the ocean does. To understand climate, you must understand what the ocean is.
As anyone who has been to the beach and felt the tug of a current can tell you, what the ocean does is move water, through both surface and deep-water currents. In moving water, the ocean is moving heat – it absorbs half of the sun’s heat that reaches our planet. Currents move warm water from the equator to the poles and cold water from the poles to the equator. This drives weather patterns, keeping regional temperatures from being as extreme as they would be if all the hot water stayed at the equator and all the cold water stayed at the poles. Additionally, as water molecules evaporate, they ultimately lead to precipitation that provides the “water of life” over land. So that’s what the ocean does – it moves water, through currents and evaporation, and that defines our weather.
Now for what the ocean is – it is a heat sink and a moisture source. The ocean stores more heat in the top three meters than the entire atmosphere does. It acts as the flywheel of our climate, absorbing and releasing heat to stabilize Earth’s temperature as a flywheel absorbs and releases energy to stabilize the speed of an engine. Changes in year-to-year climate, such as El Niño, and longer-term natural climate variability, such as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, are both driven by the ocean. Climate is actually more closely linked to ocean conditions than weather. So as to what the ocean is – it is a heat absorber and climate stabilizer.
Changes to the ocean-atmosphere system absolutely threaten the resources we depend upon from the sea. Warming sea surface temperatures have already caused marine species to shift north to cooler waters, which can wreak havoc on the lives of the fishers and communities dependent upon them. Another major problem is the addition of more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, as about a quarter of all carbon dioxide released is absorbed by the ocean. As the amount of carbon dioxide we release into the atmosphere has grown, so too has the total uptake by the ocean. This has fundamentally changed the chemistry of seawater, making it more acidic, in what is known as “ocean acidification.” If you happen to have a shell made of calcium carbonate (such as oysters, clams, and sea urchins) or weakly-protected bones (like larval fish), this is bad news – a more acidic ocean makes it harder for these species to build their shells or grow into adult fish, which puts the entire food web at risk and threatens coastal economies dependent upon shellfish and finfish fisheries.
Skroupa: So the ocean is a driver of climate, but it is also impacted by the increasing carbon dioxide levels. As someone who has worked at the nexus of national security and climate change for decades, can you explain how these changes impact our national security? And is this a future threat or something that’s already happening?
White: Absolutely, climate change is already happening, and it does impact our national security. It has effects across the board, but there are four key areas I’ll focus on.
The first is how the changing climate impacts our military infrastructure. This includes physical structures, such as bases, but also information infrastructure, like our communications systems and data. For structures, understanding and adapting to this involves more than studying how sea level rise will impact coastal infrastructure. It’s also looking at how changes in the ocean impact weather conditions inland, through events like droughts and floods. In 2010, more than 14 inches of rain and a levee breach caused flood damage to every structure at the Navy’s facility in Millington, Tennessee, which is home to all its personnel information and programs. Some buildings had up to 55 inches of standing water. Likewise, the ability to communicate can also be temporarily disrupted by weather events. We must ensure our military is set up for success by building and updating infrastructure in a way that keeps it out of harm’s way.
The second is the impact of climate change on global stability. As people’s basic needs – such as access to food and water – are undermined, conflict arises. Our troops are deployed in areas of the world teetering on the edge of scarcity-induced unrest, which will only be exacerbated by changing weather patterns.
The third relates to access to the opening Arctic and its natural resources, which include oil and natural gas. As ice melts, we’ll have ability to reach areas we couldn’t before. However, we’ll still need heavy icebreakers to plow through the ice, and we are woefully outnumbered by Russia in this count. We have one working heavy icebreaker (a second is out of service and a third is classified as a medium icebreaker) compared to Russia’s 40. This is linked to Russia’s military build-up in the region, which also includes the reopening of a refurbished Soviet-era base and attempts to claim 460,000 square miles of the Arctic Ocean.
Finally, I’ll touch on the need to maintain resources for the military to respond to increased natural disasters. The military plays a major role in international humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HADR), from responding to 2008’s cyclone Nargis in Burma; 2009’s earthquake in Indonesia; and the 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster in Japan. Extreme weather events are expected to increase with the changing climate, meaning our military will be called upon more and more to provide critically important HADR. In today’s constrained fiscal environment, this means doing more with less where lives are at stake.
Skroupa: Is there widespread recognition in the military community that this is an issue? What steps are being taken to address it? Are the military and the science and tech communities working together to address it?
Yes, there is recognition through the military community about the impact of climate change. When Defense Secretary James Mattis was providing written answers to questions associated with his confirmation process earlier this year, he wrote, “Climate change is a challenge that requires a broader, whole-of-government response,” and said he would “ensure that the Department of Defense [DOD] plays its appropriate role within such a response by addressing national security aspects.” This recognition is nothing new – in every Quadrennial Defense report since 2010, DOD has stated that climate change plays a significant role in the national security environment.
As to how they’re incorporating it, first, it’s a component of strategic planning. They’re looking at a matrix that includes threats, the future, and places that could be exacerbated by climate change. Roadmaps, such as the Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap, are being developed to ensure that this is not a haphazard incorporation but a step-by-step, fully thought through process. They’re also incorporating the impacts of climate change into plans to upgrade infrastructure. For example, when determining where new bases and roads will be built, anticipated flooding, based on the best science and most up-to-date maps and modeling available, will be incorporated. Another way is through Arctic readiness in terms of people, ships, airplanes, and communications. I spoke earlier about some ways we’re behind in the region, such as our small icebreaker fleet, but plans and preparation are underway to step up our game.
Science and technology, especially involving the ocean, are necessary to address the threat of climate change. The Navy’s Task Force Ocean has an end state goal to exploit the full range of science and technology development through increased permeability between the Navy and government, academia, and the private sector. An example of this partnership is seen in our competitive advantage in undersea warfare research, which relies on the ability to execute unique data collection systems and sea-going expertise. The backbone for these programs is partnering scientists, expert engineers, and technicians. Additionally, much of the oceanographic equipment in use today (for research, observations, and modeling), has resulted from Navy investment in its development, as well as its integration to defense and non-defense at-sea platforms and in research labs through the Defense University Research Instrumentation Program.
Skroupa: The world has been talking for days about our country’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement. How that will affect our military? Trump has said that he will consider re-entering a renegotiated agreement. What is the most important thing for him to consider when that discussion begins?
White: I am very concerned about President Trump’s withdrawal of our nation from the agreement and the effects that the lack of U.S. leading by example in this regard will have on our oceans, our planet, human health, our military and our national security. I’ve spoken about how climate change impacts everything from military infrastructure to global stability, so ignoring this is very scary. Last year, Ash Carter, the former Secretary of Defense, put the “growing strategic impact of climate change” on par with challenges associated with North Korea’s nuclear and missile provocations and threats from extremist groups. Just as ignoring one of those challenges puts us on uneven footing, so, too, does ignoring this.
My advice for the president when trying to renegotiate an agreement is to understand this – that ignoring climate change puts us at a strategic, operational, and diplomatic disadvantage and creates very real problems that we won’t be prepared to address. Also, it’s not an either/or economic situation – it’s not “address climate change or provide jobs,” it’s “addressing climate change will improve the job market.” And the flipside is true, too, “NOT addressing climate change will cause job loss” – as shellfish farmers put out of business by the acidifying ocean can tell you.
Skroupa: Since this is World Oceans Day, can we end with what about the ocean makes you hopeful for the future?
White: People – the world, and our great nation, are full of dedicated, hard-working people with a profound commitment to a healthy and productive ocean that will sustain us and our posterity. Since the announcement on the Paris agreement, countless people around the globe and across our nation have reaffirmed their commitment to actions that will help mitigate the ongoing destructive change to our climate and our ocean. Business owners, state politicians, scientists, teachers, farmers; Gulf States, West Coast, East Coast, Great Lakes, American Breadbasket, South, and Southwest; young and old; male and female; from every ethnic background and walk of life – it is these people (with numbers growing every day) who represent the future of our planet. They inspire me with hope and optimism.