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Inside the US military's fight against sea level rise


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WATCH  | A 2003 hurricane taught this U.S. Air Force base about sea level rise the hard way. They've since learned their lesson -- but it's not the only critical U.S. military installation susceptible to climate-related threats.

The protector

Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Hampton, Va., is surrounded by water. It's Lt. Col. Kevin Osborne's job to make sure the base doesn't drown.

And as the commander of the 633rd Civil Engineer Squadron, located at the longest continually running Air Force base in America, Osborne's got a lot to protect. Namely, a fleet of powerful F-22 Raptors, advanced fighter jets valued at about $340 million each.

A real threat to the military

During a tour of the base in November, Osborne told Circa about the consequences of uncontrolled flooding situations -- situations that are projected to become more frequent as human-caused climate change worsens.

“If we don’t protect against sea level rise and our base becomes flooded, it will impact the mission that we are not ready to defend our United States against threats abroad," he said.

Learning the hard way

Right now, Langley is well-prepared for big storms. But that's only because of a hard lesson they learned in 2003.

Hurricane Isabel nearly brought the base to its knees. Thirty-five percent of the buildings suffered damage. More than 200 mechanical systems flooded. And 22 percent of the base's aircraft engines were damaged.

In all, damage from extreme flooding cost the base $166 million.

Fight back against floods

In light of Isabel, Langley undertook a serious effort to make sure damages like that never happened again.

Engineers constructed a $5 million, 3,000-foot seawall around the base. They built huge cement blocks on which to place critical electrical infrastructure, and installed steel door dams on vulnerable buildings. Air Force personnel there also conduct regular hurricane preparation exercises. 

An effective effort

These efforts, which also include a $5 million groundwater pumping station to push flooded water off the base, appear to be working, at least when it comes to the numbers.

According to Osborne, the base has changed from its maximum $166 million in damages to $40,000 on the last big storm. Recovery time, he said, has also changed from one week to one day.

An uncertain future

Because of that, Osborne maintains that Langley is still in an ideal location -- for now. But he acknowledges that the problem is likely to get worse.

"Through numerous reports I have read, though I’m not an expert, it appears that sea level rise will continue to rise over the years," he said.

The science behind the threat

Scientists have been sounding alarms about military infrastructure on Virginia’s shoreline for years.

The most recent warning came from NASA scientist Russell DeYoung. In November, he cited data apparently showing sea levels in coastal Virginia could rise between 4 and 5 beet by 2100 if carbon emissions don’t slow. That reportedly shocked many in the community, who have been preparing for projections of between 1 and 2 feet of sea level rise before the end of the century.

120620-N-RY232-371 NORFOLK (June 20, 2012) Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) transits over the Hamptons Roads Bridge Tunnel as it departs for a regularly scheduled deployment in support of maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in the U.S. 5th and 6th Fleet areas of responsibility. The Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group includes the guided-missile cruiser USS Hue City (CG 66), the guided-missile destroyers USS Farragut (DDG 99), USS Winston S. Churchill (DDG 81), and USS Jason Dunham (DDG 109), Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 7, and Destroyer Squadron Two Eight. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Julia A. Casper/Released)

Hampton Roads, where Langley is located, is particularly vulnerable to sea level rise. It’s the second-most vulnerable region in the country behind New Orleans, according to scientists at Old Dominion University’s Center for Sea Level Rise.

Why not move it?

With all of this, you might wonder: Why is Langley so close to water in the first place?

In fact, the location was specifically chosen because of its flat, low-lying nature, and its proximity to the ocean. The location is ideal for over-water flying missions. And over water, it turns out, is a great place to demo and test aircraft that haven’t yet been fully proved.

Terrorism vs. sea level rise

But to Osborne, the impending threat of sea level rise, and the potential it has to cripple mission readiness,cannot be understated.

"Here at Air Force Base at Langley, there’s many threats that we have to deal with," he said. "The most obvious threat is the terrorist threat that we’re quickly postured today to protect our United States. Another threat that we have to worry about at Langley is actually sea level rise."

Military must plan for climate change

Osborne's rhetoric is one that has been echoed by president Obama. In September of 2016, Obama ordered defense and military leaders to consider climate change in all aspects of its planning.

That includes planning for sea level rise at Langley, but it also includes planning for droughts and increased heat waves at other installations across the country.

'60 percent' of sites affected by climate

“As part of a larger Department of Defense effort, we actually did a survey of 1500 installations, radar sites, training rages, and 60 percent reported impacts from climate change,” Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Installations Jennifer Miller told Circa. 

A lot of that includes sites impacted by sea level rise. According to Miller, the Air Force has 78 sites that are within 2 kilometers of the coastline.

No money, more problems

When it comes to preparing for sea level rise and climate change in the military though, both Osborne and Miller cited one problem in common: A lack of funding.

"We are unable to fund a lot of our priorities," Miller said.

Osborne echoed the sentiment. "There’s not enough money out there to handle all the issues as a base civil engineer that I need to worry about," he said.

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