Battling the elements - adapting to climate change on the UK's defence estate

Source(s): Acclimatise

By Ben Sears

As custodians of vast areas of land and sea, the UK’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) must manage assets and adapt to climate change to ensure it can continue to meet the UK’s defence requirements.

UK Defence strategy and priorities

The UK’s national security has increasingly been making headlines in recent years, with concern over the threat of international terrorism, destabilisation in Europe and the rise of new and old global powers. One threat that has been less well publicised, however, is that posed by climate change to its defence infrastructure and capabilities. This threat was officially recognised by the coalition government in their 2010 paper A Strong Britain in an Age of Uncertainty: The National Security Strategy. Alongside international terrorism and hostile attacks upon UK cyber space, the paper recognised “A major accident or natural hazard which requires a national response, such as severe coastal flooding affecting three or more regions of the UK…” as being a Tier 1 Priority Risk.

Although it highlights climate change threats, the strategy is focused more on the physical effects of climate change becoming “increasingly significant as a ‘risk multiplier,’ exacerbating existing tensions around the world,” rather than the potential of climate change to affect defence infrastructure and training capabilities here in the UK.

Climate-related threats to defence estate

The MoD is one of the UK’s largest landlords, owning and holding rights to over 431,300 hectares, or 1.8% of the UK land mass. As well as owning strategically important defence infrastructure, such as nuclear submarine bases and munitions stores, it also owns and manages sites of ecologically and historically important land, with management responsibility for approximately 170 designated Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and Special Areas of Conservation (SAC), many of which are of international significance.

The impacts of climate change are already being felt on the MoD estate. Some coastal sites have experienced increased flood events in low-lying areas such as Kent and Pembrokeshire, leading to periodic site closures and the interruption of military training. An article in The Telegraph highlighted the impact of coastal flooding on MoD sites, saying that “Many of the military’s most important facilities, including RAF Brize Norton, the Royal Navy bases at Plymouth and Portsmouth, and the Ministry of Defence’s headquarters in London, face a ‘direct impact’ from floods by 2020.” Fires on training areas such as Sennybridge and Salisbury Plain have historically occurred, particularly during live firing exercises, however, these have increased in frequency, with 2018 recording a higher number of incidents than previous years. Following the dry spell in June this year, exhaust fumes from a US Osprey aircraft caused a fire which destroyed 150 hectares of dry grassland on the Sennybridge Training Area in the Brecon Beacons, Wales. IT services have also been disrupted during periods of extreme heat, with significant security implications.

As well as these major events, more extreme weather has led to an increase in building and rural maintenance work and related costs. Many buildings on the defence estate date back to the 1950s and are susceptible to wind, rain and heat damage. The winter storms of 2017 saw a significant increase in damage to roofs, fences and trees, requiring costly repairs and disruption to training.

Measuring the impact of climate change

The Defence Infrastructure Organisation (DIO) developed the Climate Impacts Risk Assessment Methodology (CIRAM) in order to take steps to identify the estate’s vulnerabilities on a site-by-site basis and build adaptive capacity where required. The CIRAM process “identifies the risks to defence outputs from current and future climate or extreme weather events, and identifies the actions required to maintain and optimise operational capability,” supporting a number of UK government programmes.

The CIRAM process has four key stages:

  • Stage A – Pre-workshop preparation: Identify who to involve. Identify site objectives and critical operational functions in delivering its defence output. Collate site information (infrastructure and assets) and identify potential issues. Collect historic and projected climatic information for the site.
  • Stage B – Risk workshop and production of a Climate Resilience Risk Register (CRRR). Organising and delivering the risk assessment workshop. Facilitating the working sessions and completing the CRRR. Risk identification. Risk scoring. Identifying actions, processes and owners.
  • Stage C – Post-workshop review
  • Stage D – Implementation. Adoption of CRRR and implementation with short, medium and long-term actions. Integration with management processes. Monitoring and review (full review every five years).

Adapting to climate change

As with any business, the findings of the CIRAM process often highlight the need for interdepartmental communication and planning and recognises areas that are likely to need to be addressed in order to protect vital defence infrastructure and maintain the operational capability and training requirements of the UK’s armed forces. Common areas that are likely to require action as a result of the CIRAM process include:

  • Strategic estate planning – the location, operation and maintenance of facilities may need to change
  • Equipment – specification and location of equipment may need to change
  • Health and safety policy – new risks may arise e.g. increased risk of fires or flooding
  • Personnel policy – working practices and skills may need to change
  • Infrastructure design and construction – major and minor project siting and specifications may need to be future climate proofed
  • Operational activities and training emphasis – may need to be revised to adapt to changing threats e.g. increased requirement of military to assist with natural disasters


As well as becoming a contributing factor to future global conflicts in which the UK is involved, climate change is also shaping the UK’s defence requirements, its estate management and its spending priorities. One of the major challenges for the defence estate is to ensure that it recognises and manages the risk posed by climate change, and adapts its infrastructure, its strategic and operational planning and its delivery accordingly.

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