Military on front line of battle with sea level rise

By Tom McLaughlin,

Published Feb 22, 2018

Politicians in Tallahassee and Washington D.C. may choose to ignore the potential menace of sea level rise, but the United States military doesn’t have that luxury.

With nearly 562,000 installations on 4,800 sites scattered across the globe, America’s armed forces rely heavily on safe, secure infrastructure, free from outside threats. The Pentagon has come to recognize sea level rise as a direct threat to the 1,774 of their sites that occupy 95,471 miles of the world’s coastline, a threat that could change the course of armed service history.

Waves from the Gulf of Mexico lap against an old sea wall on Eglin Air Force Base property on Santa Rosa Island. (Nick Tomecek / Daily News)

“The Department of Defense pays attention to climate change and sea level rise because we have to think of stability in regions where we operate as we pay attention to what our future missions might be,” said John Conger, who served as President Barack Obama’s Secretary of Defense for Energy, Installations and Environment. “It’s happening and we’re going to have to deal with it.”

“How are we going to deal with it?” Conger asked.

This year, for the first time, the Secretary of Defense is conducting a military-wide climate change/sea level rise threat assessment.

Each of the five branches of service will be required to provide a list of its 10 most threatened installations and suggestions for mitigating against whatever dangers exist, said Conger, now a senior policy advisor for the Center for Climate and Security.

Florida is home to 21 military installations, more than half of which are close to the coast. A handful of these bases are listed as vulnerable in nearly every study of the potential impact of rising seas on coastal Florida.

Kennedy Space Center, associated with the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Florida’s east coast, already is experiencing beach erosion near its main launch complex.

In 2016, the Union of Concerned Scientists reported findings of an in-depth study on rising seas and the potential impact on 16 bases in nine states. Among the bases scrutinized were Naval Air Station Key West in the Florida Keys, Naval Station Mayport near Jacksonville and Eglin Air Force Base in Northwest Florida.

The UCS analyzed the projected exposure of each base to coastal flooding for 2050, 2070 and 2100 and used the National Climate Assessment’s mid-range or “intermediate-high” sea level rise scenario of about four feet by the century’s end, as well as a “highest” scenario which estimates sea level rise of 6.1 feet by 2100.

All three Florida bases were considered among those in the United States most threatened by sea level rise between 2050 and 2100.

Naval Air Station Key West

Florida’s most threatened base, and possibly the base most at risk in the entire country, is NAS Key West. The UCS concluded the base is one of four nationwide “at risk of losing between 75 and 95 percent of their land” by the end of this century.

NAS Key West stretches across 5,800 acres of land in the Florida Keys, an area where elevations are typically no higher than three feet above sea level.

The base is home to U.S. Coast Guard Sector Key West and the Army Special Forces Underwater Training School. Fighter pilots from all branches of service train at the base, which can house up to 100 aircraft, and military ships utilize the Naval Air Station as a port. The Joint Interagency Task Force South, which targets traffickers in illegal narcotics, also calls NAS Key West home.

The UCS determined low lying areas at NAS Key West could flood 300 times a year by 2050.

Aerial photo of Naval Air Station Key West’s Trumbo Point Annex in April 2016. (3rd Class Cody R. Babin / U.S. Navy)

“Extreme tide flooding will cover more than half of NAS Key West’s land area by 2050,” the analysis said. Under a worst-case scenario, “flooding encroaches onto the runways at the base’s Boca Chica Field.”

Some parts of NAS Key West are projected to flood with such frequency by 2070 that they would effectively be part of the tidal zone, the report said. That could prevent the military from using the land.

“Given about four feet of sea level rise by the end of the century, as projected in (an) intermediate scenario, high tides would encompass roughly 70 percent of the station’s land area,” the analysis said. “With just over six feet of rise, as projected in the highest scenario, high tides would encompass 95 percent of the area.”

Today, about 80 percent of NAS Key West is exposed to flooding during a Category 1 hurricane. In even the intermediate projections, 95 percent would be exposed to flooding by 2050, the report said.

Naval Station Mayport

Naval Station Mayport, 15 miles east of Jacksonville, is home to the Navy’s third-largest fleet. Its harbor, at the mouth of the St. Johns River, is capable of holding 34 ships, including aircraft carriers. Most military aircraft can land at the base’s 8,000-foot runway.

BOB SELF/The Times-Union--6/17/10--Naval Station Mayport with it's ship basin. Aerial photos. (The Florida Times-Union / Bob Self)

Already, low-lying areas at Naval Station Mayport are impacted by tidal flooding approximately seven times a year, the UCS analysis said. It is expected, based on intermediate range projections, that those same areas would flood at least once a day by 2070.

The low-lying areas that flood today are primarily wetlands, the report said. But by 2070 occasional flooding during extreme high tides could swallow a third of the station’s current land area. Like NAS Key West and other highly threatened bases, primarily naval bases, a great deal of land area at NS Mayport could be rendered unusable by the end of the century.

The aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77) approaches Naval Station Mayport for its maiden port call. (Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Gart Granger Jr. / U.S. Navy)

“Some parts of NS Mayport are projected to flood with such frequency by 2100 that they would effectively be part of the tidal zone, as opposed to dry, usable land,” the UCS analysis found. In an extreme case, where sea levels rise by over six feet, 55 percent of NS Mayport would be considered tidal zone.

The shorter term news at Mayport might actually be worse than the UCS projection. Federal reports show the sea has risen faster at Mayport and Key West since the 1990s and about a third of an inch per year over the past decade. Mid-range projections from NOAA scientists indicate the sea could rise by another 12.6 inches at Mayport by 2030.

Storm surge from hurricanes also is projected to worsen significantly at NS Mayport as sea levels rise, according to the UCS. The base area exposed to flooding during a Category 1 storm will increase by 17 percent in an intermediate sea level rise scenario and by almost 30 percent in the highest scenario.

During Hurricane Matthew in October 2016, the National Weather Service reported the water level on the National Ocean Service gauge at Mayport reached its all-time record high.

As seas continue to rise, the base’s exposure to storm surge flooding is expected to worsen.

Eglin Air Force Base

Eglin Air Force Base encompasses 464,000 acres and extends across three counties in the Florida Panhandle.

Its primary exposure to sea level rise would occur along the barrier island that serves as the base’s southern border in Okaloosa and Santa Rosa counties. The island could face “daily tidal flooding” by late in the century, the UCS report said, leaving facilities on the islands facing “significant ocean inundation.”

The scientists reported areas on Eglin’s barrier islands that today are not affected by tidal flooding could be flooding daily by the end of the century. This daily flooding, the scientists reported, would occur under both the intermediate and highest predictive scenarios.

A large portion of Eglin Air Force Base is located on a barrier island between the Gulf of Mexico and the Santa Rosa Sound. (Nick Tomecek / Daily News)

The UCS found that extreme high tide flooding would become extensive enough at Eglin that by 2070, the extreme high tide flooding could impact “nearly all” of the barrier island facilities on base property and some areas would be rendered unusable.

“With 6.1 feet of sea level rise projected by the end of the century, most of the barrier island areas of the base would be effectively lost: they would be underwater during daily high tides,” the UCS found.

The study noted that most of Eglin’s huge reservation would not face significant flooding by 2100 even in a Category 5 storm. But “in the highest scenario, the barrier island area exposed to storm surge inundation roughly quadruples for Category 1 storms between the present day and 2100.”

Kennedy Space Center

At Kennedy Space Center, both NASA and the Air Force have become increasingly concerned about the looming impact of rising seas on its critical launch complexes. Initial concerns that erosion was eating away the coastline at Cape Canaveral were voiced after Hurricane Floyd in 1999.

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket lifts off from launch complex 41 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Thursday, Sept. 8, 2016, in Cape Canaveral, Fla. (AP Photo / John Raoux)

“We saw that we were starting to see some really serious erosion along our shoreline in the vicinity of launch complex 39 A and B,” said Don Dankert, program manager for Kennedy Space Center’s shoreline restoration project.

The Air Force, NASA and partners with the Department of the Interior who manage part of NASA’s holdings as Canaveral National Seashore and Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, worked together to look at historic shoreline change. Then they began doing aerial flights and identified areas where they saw the most severe erosion.

The most critical area, with the most erosion historically, was near the historic launch complex, 39, which includes pads A and B. On Feb. 6, SpaceX launched its Falcon Heavy rocket from pad 39A.

“Between 2001 and 2004 we had some bad nor’easters and hurricanes, Frances and Jeanne, that really accelerated some of that erosion around our shoreline,” Dankert said. By 2010 the coalition had formed a dune vulnerability team with the U.S. Geological Survey, the University of Florida and the existing partners at the Cape.

“We really started to take a hard look at what’s going on with our shoreline and what we can do to stem that erosion,” he said. “Our number one priority was to protect our inland launch structure from storm surge and over wash.”

After Hurricane Sandy blew by and caused “significant erosion,” strategies were developed to try to address the worsening erosion.

Eventually the working team decided the best option, rather than the typical shoreline restoration, was a roughly $18 million project to reconstruct the primary dune, Dankert said, and build a secondary dune system behind it “to really protect against storm surge events and the potential for over wash during storms.”

Major erosion on the beach along Kennedy Space Center has prompted NASA and the U.S. Air Force to collaborate on a project to build a secondary dune system to protect launch complex 39 from rising sea levels and storm surge. The launch complex was the site of the space shuttle launches and now is being used by SpaceX. Visitors walk the beach on Feb. 7, a day after SpaceX launched a Falcon heavy rocket. (News-Journal / Jim Tiller)

Using a congressional appropriation in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, NASA was able to rebuild about a third of the inland dunes, from just north of Pad B to just south of Pad A, the most critically eroded area.

This spring, NASA will kick off a project to complete the remaining construction, roughly three miles along the beach just south of the Playalinda entrance to the national seashore.

There’s not a lot of land between the ocean and the road that runs alongside the launch pads, Dankert said.

“The nation has billions of dollars worth of launch infrastructure along the pads and if you look at an aerial photograph, there’s not much land between the ocean and those launch pads,” he said. “Obviously that’s of number one importance to protect those assets and the taxpayers’ investment in our launch capabilities.”

Others potentially impacted

Other bases also could experience impacts, based on information from military sources and regional planning councils around Florida. Those include MacDill Air Force Base near Tampa, Patrick Air Force Base in Brevard County and several Coast Guard stations.

The Coast Guard station in Manatee County is already in the storm surge zone for even a Category 1 hurricane, according to county planning documents.

Eight Air Force installations in Florida, representing active duty, guard and reserve units, responded to a “Screening Level Vulnerability Assessment Survey,” according to Laura McAndrews at the Air Force Press Desk.

Although the survey did not look specifically at sea level changes, most of the Florida installations that responded — Eglin, Hurlburt, MacDill, Moody, Patrick, Tyndall, Jacksonville IAP (Guard), and Homestead (AF Reserve) — “indicated past impacts from flooding due to storm surge,” McAndrews said.

Naval Air Station Pensacola has incorporated mitigating against future flooding and storm surge information into its installation natural resource plan and installation development plan, Navy sources confirmed. That base is also participating in a regional task force on climate change and sea level rise.

The political climate

With conservative Republicans in control of the executive and legislative branches of government in both Tallahassee and Washington, it has become sometimes fashionable in those cities to discredit the theory of climate change.

President Donald Trump has taken steps to roll back Obama-era regulations designed to provide protection for infrastructure from sea level rise, and Florida Gov. Rick Scott has famously decreed the words “climate change” be stricken from state-generated documents.

President Donald Trump signs the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2017, in Washington. The bill orders a Pentagon report on the top 10 bases at-risk for climate change and how to mitigate those problems. (Evan Vucci / AP Photo)

It surprised many, and angered some, when Trump signed the legislation requiring military installations to assess climate change/sea level rise threats. The bill had come to him late last year after 46 Republicans in the U.S. House joined Democrats in voting to support Pentagon efforts to mitigate against sea level rise. The Senate went along with the House plan.

The Trump Administration’s National Defense Authorization Act essentially leaves intact an Obama-era Pentagon initiative known as Directive 4715.21.

The order, retired Navy Adm. Frank Bowman said in a Center for Climate and Security report, “lays out reasonable adaptation and mitigation actions to ensure or at least bolster our national security against measured and measurable climate change events, whatever the causes, or the duration, of the observed events.”

While the required lists of most threatened bases won’t be finalized until the end of the year, it is likely more than one Florida base will appear.

There seems, though, to have been little communication about mitigating against potential flooding and storm surge, at least at this juncture, between Florida bases and the board established in 2011 with the goal of protecting and enhancing the state’s military missions and installations.

State Sen. Doug Broxson, R-Gulf Breeze, chairman of the Florida Defense Support Task Force, said he has not heard sea level rise discussed in nearly a year of serving on the board.

And while task force spokeswoman Megan Bailey said no documents had been generated at the staff level discussing ways the task force could assist military bases in mitigating against sea level rise, $150,000 was approved in 2016 to assist NAS Key West in refurbishing a sea wall to prevent flooding and defend against storm surge.

“The Florida Defense Task Force is fully committed to working closely with our community partners to meet the needs of our military families and bases, including ensuring all our state’s major military installations are fully prepared for any climate or weather conditions,” Bailey said in a statement.

State spokespersons for Air Force and Navy installations contacted for this story referred comment to the Department of the Air Force and the Department of the Navy respectively.

Navy spokesman Lt. Benjamin Anderson said the Navy stands prepared to mitigate “adverse impacts to its mission from a variety of risk sources” and will work with local, state and federal partners to do so.

A military history

The Pentagon has been tracking climate change since at least 2003, when it produced a report called “An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and its Implications for United States National Security.”

“The purpose of this report is to imagine the unthinkable,” the first words of the document read.

Researchers who compiled the report detailed what might happen if human-induced climate change were to cause a near-term crisis.

The report generated controversy when it was first made public, but the furor died down when the authors’ consulting firm explained the Pentagon was theorizing a worst-case response to a fairly far-fetched event.

Since the 2003 report, though, evidence in numerous studies and reports indicates military officials have kept track of changing climate conditions and sea level rise.

Former Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller) (Monica King / U.S. Army)

In 2014, Conger, working for the Obama administration, chaired a committee that produced a document called the Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap, the document the Pentagon relied upon in formulating the language for Directive 4715.21.

Like the Abrupt Climate Change document, the roadmap analyzes climate change and sea level rise impacts for the short term, the future and in a geopolitical context.

Three main areas of focus for the DOD, Conger said, are the effects of sea level rise and climate change today, the impacts to the DOD mission of tomorrow and the geopolitical concept of a how a changing world will threaten global stability over time.

Immediate threats include increased flooding and damaging storm surge.

Conger said it also takes into account phenomena like drought and wildfire.

“There’s a range of things the changing climate does to our ability to do our job today from an installation standpoint,” he said.

Looking to the near future, Conger said, the military needs to assess threats like increases in the number and intensity level of natural disasters and, further out in time, how changing climate and sea level rise can become a “threat multiplier” as food and water become scarce in some areas and drought and flooding lead to community migration and increase the potential for conflict.

A group of high ranking officers representing each of the five branches of military service put together a report in 2016 focused on specifically how sea level rise and storm surge will impact the military of the future.

The flag officers, researching on behalf of the Center for Climate and Security, looked across a broad spectrum of previously compiled research in an effort to glean information most valuable to Department of Defense planning efforts.

They found sea level rise and storm surge could create “unrelenting erratic outages or curtailment of operations in the future” capable of disrupting major transportation, command and control, intelligence, and deployment hubs.

“In that context, the ability of the Department of Defense (DoD) to fulfill mission requirements will be more costly, take more time, and be hindered by a lack of planned-for assets at critical junctures,” stated the report, Sea Level Rise and the U.S. Military’s Mission.

“As these threats to coastal military infrastructure play out over this century, they may become strategic vulnerabilities that could affect our ability to deter our enemies, defend our interests, and support our friends. In other words, ‘at a time and a place of our choosing’ may not be our choice in the future.”

While the Union of Concerned Scientists found in its study of military bases that the gap between military preparedness and the threat of sea level rise was “large and growing,” Conger said the nature of the phenomenon provides the Department of Defense with time to ensure the armoring of its installations is done right.

“Climate change is, by its nature, a slow moving process, but it’s not easily stopped. We’re going to see more and more sea level rise over the next 100 years. This isn’t going to go away; it’s going to get worse,” he said. “But it’s going to happen at a rate where you’ll be able to plan for it.”

Another consideration, Conger said, is the military itself is ever changing.

“I would make the observation that 100 years ago, our military footprint was considerably different than it is today,” he said. “Things change. And so I don’t know if we’re going to spend a lot of time today trying to head off a problem that’s going to fully emerge 100 years from now.”

Now, Conger said, is the time for the military to be looking 30 years out while not losing sight of the bigger picture. Planning in the present for sea level rise in the future can be done more thoroughly and cost-effectively.

“Thirty years is the outer edge of most officers’ careers, and buildings last 30 to 50 years,” he said. “These are the time scales they should be thinking through for starters, while continuing to look out at the full sphere.”

Dinah Voyles Pulver, environment writer at The Daytona Beach News-Journal, contributed to this report.