Threat posed to NASA centers by Climate Change – likely decades off
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla — A recent report posted on the website Business Insider would have one believe that the launch sites at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and the adjacent Kennedy Space Center along with other key NASA locations are in immediate danger by rising sea levels. The cause of this deluge is Global Warming, or as it has recently come to be called: “Climate Change.” However, according to the article by Agence France Press (no actual author is listed), NASA is scrambling to manage the devastation at KSC, Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia and other sites to turn the tide caused by this force. But is the threat to these structures as immediate as elements of the article suggest?
NASA is currently focused on renovating many of the existing structures at KSC – but it has little to do with Climate Change. The space agency is refurbishing many of the facilities at the center so as to convert it into a 21st century spaceport, one capable of supporting multiple launch vehicles and spacecraft. SpaceFlight Insider representatives have visited KSC and other NASA centers numerous times and spoken to a wide range of officials with the space agency. The concerns raised within the Business Insider article have not been raised to the level highlighted within the story in question.
The article states the following: Many NASA centers have already faced costly damage from encroaching water, coastal erosion and potent hurricanes, said a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists.
While this is an accurate, albeit, highly-adapted assessment of history. Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral – are positioned along the Atlantic Coast and are repeatedly pummeled by the storms that were sinking Spanish ships exploring the “New World” in the late 1400s. The center is in prime territory for the violent storms which come barreling out of the Caribbean – and have done so since long before the Industrial Revolution.
Kennedy Space Center has been damaged by hurricanes in the past. In 2004, when several of these violent storms made landfall, the iconic Vehicle Assembly Building and other surrounding structures were damaged by Hurricane Ivan. To suggest that hurricanes causing damage to Florida is a “new” phenomenon, one caused by Climate Change – is not an accurate assessment of historical fact.
In order to assess just how seriously NASA/KSC took this matter, SpaceFlight Insider spoke to Daniel Tweed, the Center’s associate director for facilities in the Center Operations Directorate to see if the assessment in Business Insider were accurate.
“While I wouldn’t say that this is keeping us up at night – but it is definitely is a concern because we don’t know how soon or how much the water would rise over the years,” Tweed said. “We have done some things in terms of constructing a secondary dune to repair the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy and provide some additional protection.”
One paragraph within the article in question appears to have a critical piece of data missing – suggesting that the author’s information on the subject is likely limited. The “iconic launchpad” mentioned, Launch Complex 39A, is not named. In fact, the author fails to mention a single structure at any of the centers that are cited. Tweed talked about the work being done by his team at adjacent 39B.
“We’ve told Headquarters that we would relocate where possible when we’re doing other renovation and replacement projects. We would harden and raise elevations where possible when we are doing major renovation and new construction projects,” Tweed said.
The Business Insider article discusses the “surge” encountered at Wallops over a period of the past 70 years. The surge in question? nine inches (23 centimeters). Compare that to the surge caused by Hurricane Sandy: more than 8 feet (244 centimeters) – which occurred over a period of less than a day.
As Wallops was mentioned throughout the article, SpaceFlight Insider contacted NASA’s Keith Koehler, one of NASA’s Public Affairs Officers at Wallops, to get the space agency’s rationale behind the upgrading of the seawall which shields the launch sites located there.
“That was something we did in 2012 and was a reflection of a number of factors. We often get nor’easters that blow through here which requires us to upgrade and strengthen these sites,” Koehler said. Contrary to the Business Insider report however, while Koehler confirmed that Climate Change was one of the things that Wallops was concerned about in terms of maintaining the structures located there – it was not as large a concern as suggested by the article in question.
Near the end of the article, the fact that the sea level at NASA’s Langley Center, also located in Virginia, is estimated at rising some five feet – between 1980 and 2100 – a time span of some 120 years. It is unclear why the author of the piece chose to make alarming statements in the headline as well as throughout the beginning of the story – but leave this critical piece of information for last. In terms of journalism 101 – this is exactly the opposite of how trained journalists are taught to write.
In journalism, one of the methods used is called “inverted pyramid” – in this structure – key information is placed at the top, with less relevant information being placed closer to the bottom. Given that the article’s headline reads: Rising Sea Levels Are Destroying NASA’s Multi-Billion Dollar Facilities – one would think that a critical piece of information would be that much of the potential destruction described – is predicted to take place over the next eight-and-a-half decades. Also given the initial tone of the article one would assume that NASA officials would at least mirror some of the claims made within the article.
“I don’t have any specific projects in work that are making specific changes due to Climate Change – other than the secondary dune construction we’ve just finished one section which was in the area damaged the worse by Hurricane Sandy and we have a project programmed, but not funded, to catch the rest of the secondary dune construction in the Pad B area,” Tweed said.
Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX ) has taken control of Launch Complex 39A via a lease. Through this agreement, SpaceX operates and maintains 39A and will be doing repair, renovation and construction work to the site where humans first left Earth to set foot on another world. For its part, NASA is coordinating with the NewSpace firm in their efforts – but they are not performing it for them, nor are they dictating what SpaceX should do. SpaceX does have to get approval for what they do first. From what NASA has intimated, the changes being made to 39A by SpaceX do not appear to have anything to do with Climate Change.
Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.