Munitions Stores May Be Blowing Up Due to Climate Change

As the world grapples with how to tackle the catastrophic threat of climate change, the effects of the global phenomenon continue to have a dastardly impact on societies almost everywhere. But while some of the repercussions of climate change are obvious, and easily traceable to changes in global temperatures, others are quite indirect, and thusly far more surprising. One of those horrible surprise repercussions may be the random, often deadly, explosions of military arms depots, which are now happening at what is thought to be an increasing rate.

According to a recently published Scientific American article, which was reported by Futurism, the author of the article, Peter Schwartzstein, says that weapons experts are warning that “unplanned explosions at munitions sites,” or “UEMS,” are likely to increase as climate change both raises summer temperatures and increases the number and strength of heat waves. He notes that even though it’s difficult to say with certainty which explosions are or aren’t directly due to rising temperatures—witnesses are often killed in the explosions, and the explosions themselves are usually violent enough to wipe out evidence of how they were triggered—his own analysis of available data shows that there is a strong link between rising temperatures and the increasing number of exploding depots.

His conclusion is based on data pulled from the Small Arms Survey, an independent research project located at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland. According to the wiki for the Survey, the research project’s goal is to “[provide] information on all aspects of small arms and armed violence, as a resource for governments, policy-makers, researchers, and activists, as well as research on small arms issues.”

Using that data, Schwartzstein was able to determine that the likelihood for an arms depot explosion increases by about 60 percent between April and mid-September—i.e. the hottest months of the year. And even though one’s initial conclusion may be that arms depots explode more often in the summertime regardless of the effects of climate change, there’s one important fact that flies in the face of that idea: While the number of arms depot explosions had been declining in the decades following the end of the cold war, that trend may now be reversing itself. Schwartzstein also notes that out of the arms depot explosions that take place during those six-or-so months, 20% already have heat stated as their leading cause, and another 25% don’t have any explanation at all.

As far as why heat would make arms depot explosions more likely, the reason is probably exactly what you think it is. “If exposed to extreme temperatures and humidity for long enough, a munition can become unstable and may even more or less strip itself apart,” Schwartzstein says in his article. He gives multiple, specific ways this can occur, pointing out, for example, that white phosphorous melts into a liquid at 44 degrees Celsius and, at that temperature, can crack its outer casing when it expands.

Sadly, these explosions are not only far too frequent, but also capable of instantly killing scores of people. Schwartzstein describes numerous heartbreaking instances of arms depot explosions, although one that stands out is a UEMS that occurred in Nigeria in 2002, which killed more than 1,000 people. It’s also noted that many of these explosions are taking place in the Middle East, where temperatures are already higher, and where, often times, militaries are not equipped to properly store their weapons.

Research points to the possibility that weapons depots are exploding more frequently due to climate change.

The aftermath of another UEMS that occurred in Cyprus in 2011. IDE technologies ltd

As far as solutions go, it seems the most pragmatic one can be taken quite quickly, and, be done for a relatively small amount of money (relative to the cost of making temperature-controlled depots that won’t explode at all). And that solution is to move the depots far away from urban areas so, at the very least, fewer people die when the depots do explode. Which is obviously completely unsatisfactory, but hopefully only a first step toward changing the way weapons and munitions are stored all together.

What do you think of this tragic phenomenon? Do you have any ideas as to how to tackle this problem? Give us your thoughts in the comments.

Feature image: the United States Navy

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