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NEWS | May 9, 2022

Meet the NSWC Dahlgren Team that Maps Infrastructure Vulnerabilities Amidst a Changing Climate

By NSWCDD Corporate Communications

In 2019, the Department of Defense (DoD) set out to gauge the effects of a changing climate on national security by examining a representative sample of 79 installations selected across the service branches. Of 19 naval installations analyzed in the report, each faces a single or combination of threats such as recurring flooding, drought or in some cases, wildfires. With extreme weather brought on by climate change expected to only increase in severity in the years ahead, Pentagon leaders stated that “the nations and alliances that are more resilient to the impacts of climate will have an advantage.”

Extreme weather threatens not just the environment and property on bases, but it can also potentially impede missions that are critical to national security. Minimizing that risk is better understanding how military operations and physical infrastructure worldwide intertwine in hidden and unexpected ways. 

“Everything in our modern world is interconnected,” said Ann Shows, branch head for Cyber Analysis and Mission Assurance at Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division (NSWCDD). “Take any military base here in Virginia. The physical facilities and personnel depend on layers of infrastructure, ranging from the phone and internet cables used for administrative office work to the regional bridges and roads that personnel use for the commute to the base, to the municipal water distribution systems that cool large computers.” A disruption to one of those systems can have significant downstream implications for the base and even interrupt operations. The analysts in this branch identify significant reasons that disruptions could occur and determine their impact, with natural disasters being one of the many areas evaluated by the team.

When forecasts predict such extreme weather events, Shows and a team of dozens of infrastructure experts at NSWCDD kick into gear. They share a common goal: to help military bases better understand their dependencies on physical infrastructure systems and how they might be impacted by a looming hurricane, flood or other natural disasters. 

“The preparation we do saves time and money while helping end users constantly improve their results,” explained Project Lead Denise Altman. “We are helping our military customers understand what they need to support their missions.” The team at NSWC Dahlgren has experts in all infrastructure areas, including telecommunications, cyber, electric power, fuels, transportation, chemical and water systems. Many team members originally hail from private sector utility companies or have a technical background in engineering or geospatial analysis. According to Altman, the team looks at both the commercial and the DoD side of these infrastructure systems to help mission owners understand their dependencies and where additional layers of protection may be needed to minimize the impact on the mission.

Typically, that takes the form of analytical reports which examine the range of potential impacts that natural disasters or weather can pose for the military. Quick turnaround assignments, like those arising from an imminent storm, can be researched and sent out in as little as 24 hours. In non-emergency circumstances, the team also produces deep dives of significantly greater scope, sometimes reaching hundreds of pages and taking weeks or months to compile. Many reports feature geospatial products to help non-infrastructure-experts easily grasp takeaways. “People are very visual, so we present the networks, nodes, and dependencies for an area of interest via maps and other graphic displays,” said Project Lead Evelyn Peyton, who works alongside Shows and Altman at Dahlgren. “When you see these systems represented geographically, it enhances the report and helps convey the information more clearly than large blocks of text.” 

NSWCDD’s involvement in such work goes back at least three decades. “The great work that we have done over the years, for both DoD and non-DoD sponsors, enhances each future product,” noted Peyton. “Our work continues to expand for both the portfolios we are responsible for and the resources available to meet the sponsors’ requests.” The team currently numbers some 36 government and contractor employees working not just weather hazards but other potential threats as well. 

The centralization of talent at Dahlgren has advantages that would not be available if each military base tracked such issues independently. “It is important that all the analysts work as a team,” said Altman, who emphasized the overlapping relationships between one infrastructure system and the next. “If something alarming comes up related to the water system, it’s a big advantage having the water/wastewater and electric power experts sitting together in the room. Everything is interconnected and mutually supporting.” 

The Office of the Secretary of Defense recently recognized the team of infrastructure experts at NSWCDD as a Center of Excellence. “Collaboration and cross-communication are critical,” Shows noted. “We gained that recognition by having the subject matter expertise centralized in one location.”