Living on the edge: NASA centers and military operations at risk of sea-level rise

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NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility is a rocket launch site located on Wallops Island, Virginia. Photo by NASA/Wallops on Flickr.

By Ava Borskey

BATON ROUGE, LA — Amid the densely populated cities and tourist-scattered beaches of the U.S. coast, you’ll find a trillion-dollar economy home to science, technology and military operations.  

As the Earth continues to warm and sea-levels rise, vital infrastructure along the coast, like NASA operation centers and military bases, will have to adapt to the impacts of a changing climate. 

“If you look at where Wallops is based, you look at Kennedy Space Center and even NASA Langley, we are on the coast,” said Laura Rogers, an associate program manager for NASA’s Applied Sciences Program. “We’re at that front edge of where we’re going to be impacted, so we’ve definitely taken a close look at it.”  

Two-thirds of NASA’s constructed assets – like laboratories, launch sites, airfields, wind tunnels, data centers and other structures – can be found within 5 meters of sea level, and five NASA coastal centers are projected to experience sea level rise between 13 and 69 centimeters by the 2050s, according to a study from 2014 entitled “Enhancing Climate Resilience at NASA Centers.” 

“NASA coastal centers that are already at risk of flooding are virtually certain to become more vulnerable in the future,” the study says.  

Shanna McClain, a risk reduction and resilience adviser and global partnerships manager at NASA, said the agency looks at not only the risks to NASA buildings and operations, but also what resilience to climate change looks like more broadly. 

Internally, that includes things like ensuring energy efficiency in NASA operations, such as using solar energy or monitoring emissions. Externally, that includes providing data to community partners who are facing similar climate challenges. 

“We are, first and foremost known, I think, as data providers,” McClain said. “With a lot of the Applied Sciences Program, we’re working with community partners to actually not just give them data, but ensure that it’s integrated, that it’s fit for purpose and that it’s used in a way that allows them to adapt and change their policies.” 

NASA certainly isn’t the only group with eyes on the rising seas. A significant number of U.S. military bases are also in coastal regions.  

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently granted $9.3 million to a group of Louisiana State University professors to research how climate change and sea-level rise will impact coastal military bases and ecosystems. 

Clint Willson, an LSU civil and environmental engineering professor working on the project, said it’s important to gain a better understanding of how coastal systems will respond to climate change, whether its sea level rise, riverine flooding, storm surge patterns or interactions between all three. 

If wetlands become increasingly inundated with salty, coastal water for extended periods, it could adversely impact the existing vegetation. 

“It stresses the system,” Willson said. “Unfortunately, in a lot of cases you end up with vegetation that dies, and then, the dying vegetation either creates open water, or you now have soil, sediments, that don’t have vegetation on them. Well, guess what? Those are harder to work, live, play on.” 

If soil properties change, it could impact existing military infrastructure or even training and mobility. Understanding how and at what speed these changes take place can help coastal systems adapt to the changing coast.  

“The things that we will learn and work on through this project translate just as easily…to any kind of civil engineering project,” Willson said. “How are we going to have to plan, design and construct projects in the future?” 

McClain agrees that a holistic perspective is key. 

“What can we be doing even further to change the design of how we build anything, really, whether it’s an energy system, a telecommunications system or a community,” McClain said. 

McClain said that though contingency planning will always be necessary, preparation and planning can help mitigate a lot of risks beforehand. 

“I think that there’s these questions about how early do I think about risk?” McClain said. “You think about it as soon as you can, and you should be thinking about all potential risks when you go into a particular project.” 

“The more we can look at risks before we build anything, the better off we are,” she said.

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