Naval base isn't ready for rising seas, study warns [Virginian - Pilot]
(Virginian - Pilot Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) By Dianna Cahn
Norfolk Naval Station's vital infrastructure wouldn't survive the kind of powerful storms and widescale flooding that rising seawaters are expected to bring by the second half of the century. And those conditions would likely get even worse in the following decades.
That's the conclusion of a three-year case study of the naval base, conducted by the Army Corps of Engineers, which analyzed computer storm models based on varying degrees of sea level rise.
It was one of four government-funded studies conducted nationwide to assess the impact of sea levels rising as much as 6 feet over the next 85 years.
"Military bases ... are designed to be able to withstand hurricanes and flooding and that type of thing - to some extent," said Kelly Burks-Copes, a Corps of Engineers research ecologist who led the study of the base. She spoke during an interview this week after presenting the findings at a conference at Old Dominion University.
"But there was a growing concern that the military's infrastructure was no longer sustainable in the face of exacerbated storms and that climate change was likely to cause frequent storms, stronger storms, even if they are infrequent, more flooding," she said. "And they needed the questions asked: What were the risks and if there were risks, were there ways to reduce the risks?"
The results drive home the immensity of the challenge the Navy faces preparing for a long-term threat as budget crises and government shutdowns undermine even short-term planning.
"It's so hard to think decades out when I think most of the time they are just trying to get to Friday," said retired Rear Adm. David -Titley, who was the Navy's oceanographer and founding director of the service's task force on climate change. Titley, who now directs a center on climate change at Penn State, was a keynote speaker at the conference. "But at some point, you gotta do it."
The study, begun in 2009, examined the impacts of five types of storms on Norfolk Naval Station based on varying increments of sea level rise up to about 6 feet.
In all, it modeled 25 storms.
The team mapped the base down to 30-foot grid sections and documented every piece of infrastructure, Burks-Copes said.
"We asked whether the base could withstand the forcings that were coming out of these storms - the winds, the surge, the waves and the flooding," she said. "Can the buildings withstand that? Can the electricity withstand that? Can the water supply withstand that?"
The study also demonstrated how reliant the base's systems are on civilian infrastructure outside its gates - and fostered discussions between local officials and military leaders.
The results found that at some point between a 1.5-foot and 3- foot rise of the sea, the Navy base - and much of Hampton Roads - would be submerged for hours or even days by a big storm. Without proper planning, the base would be unable to function.
The study identified weak points that can help the Navy plan as it replaces aging equipment and infrastructure, Burks-Copes said.
It can also help the Navy avoid spending money on short-sighted options that will force more spending down the road.
For example, since 2001, the Navy has been building expensive double-deck piers in Norfolk that are supposed to last for decades. They protect the utilities on the lower decks from water damage - based on current sea levels. That works now, she said, but because they weren't designed to address climate change, they won't be usable as long as expected.
Terri Davis, a spokeswoman for Norfolk Naval Station, said the base is designed to withstand significant storm surge, "which affords us the opportunity to be methodical and deliberate in our approach to long-term sea level rise."
Sea level rise will be a problem for some naval bases in the future, "but it is not an immediate crisis," Davis said, adding that the corps' study, and others, will inform future plans for the base.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts that sea level will rise from 1.5 feet to more than 6 feet by 2100, - Titley said. He said about 3 feet is the likeliest scenario, a figure that could serve as a starting point as Navy officials plan for the future.
Average global temperatures have risen 2 degrees since the mid- to late 1800s, and sea levels have climbed a foot. With melting glaciers and ice sheets, the trend could speed up.
In 2009, Titley compiled data for the Navy on what climate change means for the service. He was pleasantly surprised, he said, by how receptive the leadership was.
Still, with costs that likely will climb into the trillions, the challenges of meeting the threat are formidable.
Even if the Navy does little now, it can use the study findings to plan what needs to be done, said Titley, who retired from the Navy 13 months ago.
"What is our backup if you lose Norfolk?" he asked. "What's plan B?"
Mayport Naval Station in Florida couldn't accommodate all of Norfolk's ships, and after rounds of base closings in recent decades, there are fewer Navy bases to choose from. Unlike the Army or the Air Force, which could just pull back and build an airfield farther inland, the Navy won't have those options.
"These questions are not or should not go away," Titley said. "The Navy will be front and center in dealing with this option whether it wants it or not."
Dianna Cahn, 757-222-5846, firstname.lastname@example.org
Average global temperatures have risen 2 degrees since the mid- to late 1800s, and sea levels have climbed a foot.
It is predicted that by 2100, sea levels will rise from 1.5 feet to more than 6 feet. The midrange of 3 feet is the likeliest scenario. The cost of meeting the threat across the Navy could be trillions of dollars.
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