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Rising Seas Threaten Coastal Military Bases


And we're going to look now at one line - one line - in President Trump's executive order on the environment. It's a line that did not get much attention. In it, President Trump revoked President Obama's directive that federal departments including the Pentagon should treat climate change as a national security threat. For the Navy, one of those threats is the sea itself. Reporter Jay Price of member station WUNC visited a spot in Norfolk, Va., where sea level rise is measured.

JAY PRICE, BYLINE: We're on a pier at the world's largest Navy base. Navy destroyers behind us, and in front, a white cabinet not much bigger than a refrigerator.

DEAN VANDERLEY: It's called the Sewell's Point tidal gauge.

PRICE: Captain Dean VanderLey heads engineering for Navy infrastructure along much of the East Coast.

VANDELEY: Not really much to look at, but it's operated by NOAA.

PRICE: That's the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

VANDELEY: And they've had a tidal gauge out here since 1927. So, you know, I think when it comes to monitoring the sea level on the East Coast, this is, you know, one of the places that they've got the most data.

PRICE: And that data shows that the water has risen almost 15 inches here in Hampton Roads in under a hundred years. That's the most on the East Coast. Flooding already is so routine that giant rulers have been erected along city roads outside the base to show where the water is too deep for a car to drive through. And in little more than two decades, the main road into the base could be flooding almost daily at high tide.

VANDELEY: Fortunately, it's not going to hit us overnight. But it's something where I don't know that we've fully defined the problem. And we have definitely not fully defined the solution.

PRICE: VanderLey says that when the Navy adds new buildings or replaces aging infrastructure like barracks or a pier, they're built higher. But there's no plan for protecting the whole base. The risks were highlighted in a report last summer by the Union of Concerned Scientists. It said 128 American military installations are at risk from sea level rise, including several right here. The region has been called the world's greatest concentration of military might. Retired Navy Captain Ray Toll at Old Dominion University studies methods for dealing with sea level rise.

RAY TOLL: The federal presence here is unlike any other region in the entire country when you consider 11 agencies from the federal government, you know, work in this region.

PRICE: There are key Navy, Air Force, Marine and Coast Guard bases, a host of towns and cities clustered tightly around them, the shipyard and one of the nation's busiest ports. Even NASA is here. Because of the high stakes for national security, the Obama administration had turned Hampton Roads into a test bed for ideas.

There was a study of the effects of sea level rise on transportation, a $120 million grant mainly to blunt the effects of flooding in a single Norfolk neighborhood. And the Pentagon is funding local governments studying how to protect towns and the bases from sea level rise. Ray Toll says paying for fixes, not just studies, will cost even more money.

TOLL: So what happens if it dries up? I worry that if we lose the momentum, then what has happened will atrophy away.

PRICE: President Trump wants to spend more on defense. He's also called climate change a hoax. We don't know yet what will be in the fine print of the defense budget but not spending costs time. And another four or eight years is a long time, especially in Hampton Roads. David Titley of Penn State is a retired rear admiral and meteorologist who once led the Navy's climate change task force.

DAVID TITLEY: Norfolk, my guess is we're in the 10 to 15 years. And if we don't get serious by then, we're really cutting it close. Maybe some of the other places we've got another decade, a couple of decades or so but it's coming.

PRICE: He says the slow motion nature of the threat is a big part of the danger because it allows procrastination, even by politicians and military leaders who believe that sea level rise is a threat. And it makes it more likely the Pentagon will be forced to handle sea level rise as a crisis rather than a challenge. For NPR News, I'm Jay Price in Norfolk, Va.

(SOUNDBITE OF CARLO'S "TRAPPED IN THE ATTIC") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jay Price is the military and veterans affairs reporter for North Carolina Public Radio - WUNC.

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