'Disaster Alley': Cyclone Debbie Shows How Climate Change Will Test Australia's Military

Fairfax - Peter Hannam

As Rockhampton residents braced for a nine-metre-high major flood this week, efforts were bolstered by some of the 1600 Australian Defence Force troops deployed to help cope with Cyclone Debbie and its aftermath.
In the past fortnight, the military dispatched helicopters, four landing craft, two larger naval ships and conveys of heavy vehicles to deliver water, medicine and other emergency supplies after the category four storm hit.

Cyclone Debbie by the numbers
Since Cyclone Debbie struck in late March, extreme weather has wreaked a path of destruction across Queensland and New South Wales.

"Only the military has the large-scale capability of relief response," Michael Thomas, a retired army major, said.
It's a capability that has been tested in recent years, whether from category five Cyclone Winston that smashed Fiji last year or the huge El Nino which brought severe drought to Papua New Guinea.
And the challenge might have been made even tougher had Cyclone Ernie – which rapidly intensified this week into a category five tempest – not turned away from the Australian continent when it formed off the WA coast this week. A weaker but still dangerous cyclone is heading towards Vanuatu this weekend.
"Disaster relief is increasing in frequency and scope and scale," said Mr Thomas, who will publish a book on the US and Australian readiness for climate change in June.

'Disaster alley'
Australia lies in the midst of what Sherri Goodman, a former Deputy Under Secretary of Defence for environmental security in the US, dubs "disaster alley".
The region is home to large and swelling populations in coastal and delta regions exposed to cyclones and other extreme weather. These events are predicted by scientists to worsen with global warming.
An Australian Army Mercedes Benz G-Wagon disembarks landing craft at the Keppel Bay Marina, Yeppoon, Central Queensland, bound for Rockhampton. Photo: Abis Bonny Gassner
Ms Goodman, who met senior Australian military members during a visit this week to Canberra, noted admiral Samuel Lockler III, the former head of the US Pacific Command, had described climate change as the biggest long-term security threat in the region.
"The Australian military and the Department of Defence are very interested to be leaders" on this issue, she said. "They know it's the right thing to do."
Taking direction: The Australian Defence Force deployed about 1600 troops to help communities with Cyclone Debbie's aftermath. Photo: Australian Defence Force
Fairfax Media sought comment from the ADF.
Ms Goodman coined the phrase "threat multiplier" a decade ago as the Pentagon stepped up efforts to focus on planning for the consequences of a warming world.
The Australian Defence Force aircraft on hand to assist with the ex-tropical Cyclone Debbie's clean-up. Photo: Australian Defence Force
Among the challenges is the vulnerability of military assets themselves, such as naval bases that are at risk from rising sea levels and storm surges, she said.
Armed forces must also prepare for greater instability as fragile nations become more unstable through crop failure or forced migration within and across borders.
Sherri Goodman, a former Deputy Under Secretary of Defence for environmental security in the US, says Australia lies in "disaster alley". Photo: Wilson Centre
And militaries such as Australia's will need to be ready to divert more personnel and equipment to meet disaster relief needs both at home and abroad, Ms Goodman said.

'Significant impacts'
David Titley, a retired US admiral, said regions between 30 degrees north and south of the Equator are among the most vulnerable on earth to climate change.
"[It's] where precipitation is likely to decrease, temperatures will increase in some places to near lethal levels, and potentially stronger tropical cyclones will come ashore on an ever-higher sea level," Admiral Titley said.
"Much of Australia is poleward of 30 degrees South, so there will likely be significant impacts to your country - but there will be large impact throughout South and Southeast Asia," he said.
Mr Thomas, who last year inaugurated a week-long climate change and security course at the Australian Defence College, said Cyclone Debbie also served as a reminder that military bases "are not islands".
They remain reliant to varying degrees on civilian infrastructure such as electricity, water and sewerage systems that could be disrupted by big storms.
Similarly, their staff, whether civilian or military, "have to be able to get to the bases" – something that's not always possible when bridges or roads are damaged or destroyed by extreme weather, he said.


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