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Climate Preparedness and Resilience

About the Program

Climate change has the potential to affect all of the missions of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Climate Preparedness and Resilience Community of Practice develops and implements practical, nationally consistent, and cost-effective approaches and policies to reduce potential vulnerabilities to the Nation’s water infrastructure resulting from climate change and variability. We work in partnership on this effort with other Federal science and water management agencies, academic experts, the private sector, and other stakeholders.

USACE operations and water management control activities provide the largest challenge given future climate change and variability.  In order to ensure continued effective and efficient water operations in both the short (5-10 years) and longer term (10—50 years), nationally consistent but regionally tailored water management adaptation strategies and polices are needed.  Such policies must balance project operations and water allocations within authorized project purposes with changing water needs and climate-driven changes to operating parameters. This must be accomplished while working in close coordination with a wide variety of intergovernmental stakeholders and partners. 

This program will also provide planning and engineering guidance to ensure future infrastructure is designed to be sustainable and robust in a range of potential climate changes.

Mission Statement

The mission of the Responses to Climate Change Program is:

To develop, implement, and assess adjustments or changes in operations and decision environments to enhance resilience or reduce vulnerability of USACE projects, systems, and programs to observed or expected changes in climate.

Observed climate change and variability has affected and will continue to affect USACE missions and operations. These observed variabilities include changes in drought intensity and frequency in the late 1970s and changing sea levels in the mid-1980s. These changes in the 1970s and 1980s were followed by studies on the economic impacts of climate change in the early 1990s. Prompted by Hurricane Katrina in the mid 2000s, USACE re-focused on land subsidence and changing sea levels. Around this same time, USACE began to feel the impacts of altered mountain snowpack and subsequent runoff patterns that impact floods and droughts.

How Do Hydrologic and Sea Level Changes Affect USACE Mission Areas?

Corps climate preparedness and resilience activities are undertaken to ensure reliable performance or mission and operations in changing conditions. The observed and expected effects include reduced reliability of inland and coastal navigation channels, increased frequency of overtopping for coastal levees, increased shoreline erosion and associated decreased coastal storm damage reduction, altered channel sedimentation that can increase flood elevations, increased reservoir sedimentation that reduces storage for flood control and water supply storage in Corps reservoirs, inability to provide necessary pumping capacity, and changing snowmelt conditions that impact reliable hydropower production, flood risk reduction, navigation, recreation, and water supply. These activities comply with authorities including Section 216 of the River and Harbor and Flood Control Act of 1970; Section 731 of the Water Resources Development Act of 1986; Sections 3022, 3024 and 3029 of the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014; and specific project and purpose authorizations.

What is Climate Preparedness and Resilience?

Water resource managers must be able to be responsive to events not seen in the past, surprises, and other unexpected events, both natural and socioeconomic. In order to maintain the benefit of existing and proposed water resource projects in the changing climate, water resources managers must move from an expectation that the future will be similar to the past — or stationary — paradigm to one that more explicitly accounts for the dynamic nature of physical and socioeconomic processes.

Climate change is one of many global changes USACE faces in carrying out its missions to help manage the nation's water resources infrastructure. Water resource managers must make decisions that rely upon assumptions about future supplies, demands, weather, climate, and operational constraints at varying space and time scales. These decisions are made within the presence of various degrees of uncertainty. USACE must provide our stakeholders and partners with data and information that allows them to make risk-informed decisions as well.

The USACE climate preparedness and resilience goal is to develop practical, nationally consistent and regionally tailored, legally justifiable and cost-effective adaptation measures, both structural and nonstructural, that will reduce vulnerabilities and improve resilience to these challenges (USACE Climate Change Adaptation Plan and Report 2011). Recognizing that, over time, uncertainty may decrease as we increase our knowledge of climate change, its impacts, and the effects of adaptation and mitigation options (including unintended consequences) water managers must establish decision processes that incorporate new information. The use of rigorous management in an adaptive fashion, where decisions are made sequentially over time, allows adjustments to be made as more information is known. The use of longer planning horizons, combined with updated economic analyses, will support sustainable solutions in the face of changing climate that meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

History of Climate Change at USACE

IWR conducted its first study related to climate change in 1977. At a time when global cooling was viewed as the most likely effect of a changing climate, IWR researchers studied 18 major river basins and the projected hydrologic consequences of temperature changes by + or – 2 degrees. Because of the Institute's experience with this study and other climate change policy studies during the 1980s, IWR was tasked by the Department of Defense (DoD) to review an EPA report on global warming in the early 1990s.

In response to the DoD request, IWR began the Economic Impacts of Climate Change research program in 1992. This study was led by Dr. Eugene Stakhiv, who had also participated in the 1977 study. The Economic Impacts of Climate Change program examined the effects of global warming scenarios on the reservoir operating systems of waterways throughout the United States. Researchers studied the projected impacts to the basins of the Ohio, Mississippi, Missouri, Rio Grande, Savannah and Green Rivers, as well as the Great Lakes. Ultimately, this study found that climate-related changes to reservoir operations would be manageable using existing adaptive management techniques.

This experience studying climate change led to Dr. Eugene Stakhiv being appointed to the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1989. He co-chaired the first IPCC Water Resource Group, served as lead author in the second and third IPCC reports, and acted as a reviewer on the fourth report. As a member of the IPCC, he shared in the award of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.

The current Responses to Climate Change program will provide planning and engineering guidance to ensure future infrastructure is designed to be sustainable and robust in a range of potential climate changes.

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Contact the Responses to Climate Change team.