Rising sea levels threaten NASA's launch sites: How the agency is responding

NASA launch sites are in danger of flooding from rising sea levels, according to the agency. More than half of NASA's facilities stands within 16 feet of sea level.

Chris O'Meara/File/AP
Space shuttle Endeavour is seen at Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. The launch pad sits only several hundred feet from the Atlantic Ocean.

The rise in global sea levels has hit home at NASA.

NASA’s space shuttle launch pads and astronaut training facilities are in danger of being flooded by rising sea levels caused by climate change, the agency warns.

"Every NASA center has its own set of vulnerabilities, and some are more at risk than others," NASA climatologist Cynthia Rosenzweig said in a post on one of the agency's websites. "But sea level rise is a very real challenge for all of the centers along the coast."

According to NASA, more than half of its infrastructure stands within 16 feet of sea level. That includes at least $32 billion in laboratories, launch pads, airfields, testing facilities, data centers, and other infrastructure – plus 60,000 employees – from the East to the West coast of the United States.  

Last month, NASA scientists issued a statement saying rising sea levels are unavoidable and more dangerous than thought.

The rise is due to two factors, say scientists. For one, when water heats up, it expands. So when the ocean warms, sea level rises. Secondly, ice melts when exposed to heat, and when ice on land melts and runs into the ocean, sea level rises.

Among the bases threatened by the surging water levels is Kennedy Space Center in Florida's Cape Canaveral, the launch point for the 1969 Moon landing and the only place in the nation where it can launch astronauts into space.

"Kennedy Space Center may have decades before waves are lapping at the launch pads," coastal geologist John Jaeger of the University of Florida said in NASA's post. "Still, when you put expensive, immovable infrastructure right along the coast, something's eventually got to give."

Kennedy is built on coastal marshland about 5 to 10 feet above sea level. The nearby beach is eroding. Last year, a protective dune not too far from the launch pads collapsed prompting NASA to address the sustainability of their coastal facilities.

In response, NASA is taking steps to protect its launch infrastructure by getting experts such as Rosenzweig on board to develop long-term plans to mitigate the consequences of the rising sea levels.

"What makes sense for us to do now? And what might we have to do later?" Rosenzweig asked. "We have to consider and understand the risks and then build something that can be adjusted."

NASA explains the flexible adaptation pathways it intends to adopt, 

“People with skills in civil chemical engineering urban planning, real estate, facilities construction and maintenance – must now weigh their options and develop long-range plans. In some places, they will need to design smarter buildings; in others, they will retrofit and harden old infrastructure. If a facility must stay within sight of the water, then maybe the important laboratories, storage, or assembly rooms should not be on the ground floor. For the launch facilities, which must remain along the shore, beach replenishment, sea wall repair, and dune building may become part of routine maintenance.”

If the sea level rise worsens, NASA says it may have to consider moving its infrastructure farther inland. 

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