Defense Watch: Assessing the Role of Geospatial Intelligence in a Period of Rapid Climate Change

by | Jul 16, 2015

By Chris Crosiar, Office of Basic and Applied Research, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (, Springfield, Va.

In my experience as a research and development scientist at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, I recall a time when the mention of climate change was so taboo, analysts could only reference an environmental anomaly. Times have changed. During the last six years, climate change has become a regular topic in the world's daily news, renewable energy is a growing economy, and the Department of Defense calls climate change a threat multiplier.

In 2014, the Military Advisory Board wrote, In many areas, the projected impacts of climate change will be more than threat multipliers; they will serve as catalysts for instability and conflict. Even earlier, in 2008, findings from the National Intelligence Council's National Intelligence Estimate”the highest-level intelligence product created in collaboration with 16 U.S. intelligence agencies”stated climate change will aggravate existing problems that threaten domestic stability in a number of African, Asian and Pacific Island states.

Dire Consequences

Climate change is the inevitable result of living on a planet that rotates daily on its axis and makes one revolution around the sun annually. What's problematic and of national security import are the severe consequences of the environmental anomalies that occur on our planet.

After the 10,000 years of relative [climate] stability scientists call the Holocene, civilization is entering a period of massive climatic upheaval with tremendous consequences for our stability, replied Bill McKibben, a noted environmentalist and founder of, an international climate change movement, via e-mail. How bad those consequences are depends mostly on how quickly we eliminate the use of fossil fuel.

Regardless of the rhetoric, for scientists in the intelligence community, our job is to focus on the security threat of climate change. And the threat is significant.

The 21st century has seen the warmest global average temperature since record keeping began in 1880”last year the average was 1.24°F (0.69°C) above the long-term average for the 20th century. The environmental impacts of climate change have been documented based on this increasing rise of the global average temperature.

The rise in temperature leads to sea ice melt and glacier retreat. Increased global temperature also produces increased water evaporation. More water vapor in the atmosphere is the energy source that results in more intense weather events and storms. Additionally, the increases in the volume of the world's oceans make coastal areas more likely to flood after storms. On the flip side, the increase in global average temperature makes dry areas drier, resulting in multiyear, multidecadal droughts.

Crop yields and water sources are intricately woven to sustain our global population. China and India have 1.4 and 1.3 billion people, respectively, according to Worldometers ( The Tibetan Plateau and its existing glaciers provide water to those two countries through five major rivers, but the Tibetan glaciers are retreating.

In 2012, Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, authored Full Planet, Empty Plates. He wrote, Not only are there no substitutes for water, but the world needs vast amounts of it to produce food. He went on to state that adults drink four liters of water a day, but it takes 2,000 liters of water”500 times as much as we drink”to produce the food we consume each day.

The impact of climate change to national security is clear. When a country loses the ability to govern due to a shortage of basic life needs”food and drink”citizens are likely to rebel or other factions will step in and try to take control. These actions are destabilizing to countries and a threat to our national security when U.S. interests or investments are high.

Taking a Proactive Approach

As intelligence analysts, the question we need to be asking is, how can national security be more proactive in dealing with these challenges? I recommend a multistep approach.

One of the primary steps is to have access to multidisciplinary data, including physical and social science data. Second, the data need to be integrated and assimilated on a time scale that supports a rapid response. Third, a paradigm shift must occur for policy and decision makers so they are equipped to make the proper notifications for an event that's anticipated, rather than reacting to one that has occurred.

Finally, intelligence analysts need to embrace the new tradecraft, one in which multiple analysts from different disciplines prepare coordinated, anticipatory analyses for decision makers. Efforts to increase our knowledge by incorporating social science data, often referred to as human geography, with physical science data will produce more in-depth geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) analysis. These steps are vital before national security can be more proactive.

At the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), research into anticipatory outcomes has begun to assist decision and policymakers to understand what's next. The nexus approach to looking at many complex systems to understand how they are interdependent had its debut in 2011 at the Bonn Nexus International Conference, The Water Energy and Food Security Nexus”Solutions for the Green Economy. Applying a systems-thinking approach to understanding the spatial and temporal linkages and interdependencies of complex systems, such as water, food and energy, is a challenging new opportunity for the GEOINT analytic tradecraft.

These complex systems have spatial extent and exhibit ˜patterns of life' over time, which can be modeled, visualized and exploited, said Edward Cope, director of Basic and Applied Research at NGA. By leveraging big data, pervasive compute power, transdisciplinary science expertise and systems thinking, GEOINT analysts will be able to expose nonlinear relationships between systems and provide anticipatory insights to nonobvious system behaviors resulting from second- and third-order network affects.

A successful result from the integration of physical and social science data would be the ability to project multiple outcomes or futures from that assimilated information. To make this shift, our GEOINT education programs and existing analytic tradecraft will have to evolve. This will deliver the integrative power of spatial temporal reasoning in the context of dynamic systems thinking, delivering anticipatory analysis.

The significant consequence of this type of analysis to policy and decision makers is a proactive stance when facing the national security problems posed by a rapidly changing global climate.

Editor's Note: Thanks to the NGA Pathfinder staff for their assistance with this column.


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