Published — September 24, 2019

The U.S. Navy has a water problem

Aerial image of Naval Station Norfolk. (US Navy / Petty Officer 2nd Class Christopher Stoltz)

The Second Fleet was reactivated to patrol the Arctic. Only problem is, the fleet’s home is on the front lines of sea-level rise: Naval Station Norfolk

This story was published as part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story, co-founded by The Nation and Columbia Journalism Review.


The United States Navy has a big problem, one quite peculiar for such a huge seagoing organization: too much water. The problem isn’t the water itself; the Navy knows how to handle water. The problem is that global warming is putting too much water in the wrong places.

One of those places is Naval Station Norfolk, a vast complex in southeastern Virginia whose 80,000 active-duty personnel make it the largest naval base on earth by population. The ships and aircraft stationed at Naval Station Norfolk have historically patrolled the Atlantic Ocean, the Indian Ocean, and the Mediterranean Sea. But in May of 2018, as part of the Trump administration’s new National Defense Strategy “to deter Russia and China,” the Navy announced that it would be expanding operations in the Arctic Ocean. Rising global temperatures were melting polar ice and opening sea lanes in the Arctic, enabling access to sizable deposits of natural resources, including oil. To counter anticipated Russian and Chinese claims on those resources, the Navy has reactivated its Second Fleet, which had been deactivated eight years ago by the Obama administration; it’s based at Naval Station Norfolk.

Norfolk’s ever-increasing vulnerability to flooding and what sea-level rise means long-term for the Navy concerns some high-ranking former naval officers, including the Navy’s former top oceanographer and a former expeditionary strike group commander based in Norfolk. Already, key access roads to the low-lying Naval Station Norfolk are occasionally submerged during high tides. By 2037, access roads will be underwater during high tides for 50 days of the year, according to scientific studies by First Street Foundation, a nonprofit research group. In short, the very melting Arctic that the Second Fleet will patrol will increasingly engulf the fleet’s home base.

“Norfolk is a sea-level hot spot,” says Radm. (ret.) David W. Titley, who was the Navy’s chief oceanographer and initiated its Task Force on Climate Change in 2009. “So if I were to go into a secret room with the Navy brass I’d say, ‘Okay, no BS. We’re probably going to have a 3 to 4 degree Celsius temperature rise this century, and unless we find a way to take the CO2 out of the air in scale, that means we’re [eventually] looking at 15-20 feet of sea-level rise.’… What does the Navy do if Norfolk goes underwater?” Titley is now a professor of meteorology at Penn State, where he is the director of the school’s Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk.

“It’s certainly ironic,” says Radm. (ret.) Ann Phillips, former commander of Expeditionary Strike Group Two in Norfolk, who is now the special assistant to the governor of Virginia for coastal adaptation and protection. She adds, “Coastal Virginia is very vulnerable to sea-level rise.” A resident of Norfolk herself, Phillips said there are times when her own street floods, and so for her, as such flooding increases in frequency, the question becomes, what choices does she make to best prepare her family and property? Similarly, she says, the Navy and the US government will have to decide, “What are the costs and benefits of preparing for floods and higher sea levels, and what is the best use of federal funds related to environmental resilience?”

Such talk is unwelcome, of course, in a White House where the president insists that climate change is “a Chinese hoax.” “It’s as if we had a president who didn’t think China existed,” says Representative Adam Smith, a Democrat from Washington state who chairs the House Armed Services Committee. “This president does not live in a fact-based universe.”

Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, also dismisses climate science. In 2010, when Pompeo first won election to Congress, the single largest contributors to his campaign were Charles and David Koch, the oil industry barons who have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to elect government officials who favor limited taxes and regulations on corporations, especially corporations in the fossil fuel industry. Pompeo is also a self-described evangelical Christian who believes in the “Rapture,” the prophecy that Jesus Christ will soon return to Earth and true Christians will be instantly transported to heaven and unbelievers to hell — so why worry about climate change?

In May, Pompeo led the US delegation in a meeting of the Arctic Council, an international organization composed of eight nations with borders on the Arctic along with indigenous peoples who reside there. The United States blocked any mention of climate change in the joint declaration issued at the end of that meeting. But Pompeo did extol the Arctic as a region of “opportunity and abundance” of natural resources where the United States is “fortifying America’s security and diplomatic presence,” saying, “Steady reductions in sea ice are opening new passageways and new opportunities for trade.”

Indeed, seven months before the Arctic Council meeting, the United States dispatched the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman and other warships to the Arctic, the first time the Navy had sent an aircraft carrier above the Arctic Circle since the end of the Cold War. Richard Spencer, the secretary of the Navy, later announced that additional patrols in the Arctic were planned for 2019. “We have to learn what it’s like to operate in that environment” where bitter temperatures and rough seas stress equipment and personnel, Spencer said at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank, in January 2019. Longer term, the Navy envisions building a new base for Arctic operations, perhaps on the Bering Sea in Alaska. “It’s an area we have to focus on, most definitely,” said Spencer.

Meanwhile, though, the Second Fleet will patrol the Arctic from Naval Station Norfolk. And as with all coastal regions on this rapidly warming planet, sea-level rise in Norfolk is just getting started.

The reestablished Second Fleet’s home is by no means the only Navy facility at risk in the Norfolk region or around the world. Norfolk and its sister city, Newport News, straddle the opening through which the James River flows into the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean. It’s a low-lying region traversed by streams, rivers, and swamps — the closest edge of the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge lies eight miles southwest of Norfolk— that houses a cluster of maritime facilities, some privately owned but most belonging to the Navy, including the Craney Island U.S. Naval Supply Center, the Naval Medical Center and the Norfolk Naval Shipyard.

The Navy’s oldest such facility, the Norfolk Naval Shipyard attracted attention earlier this month when Trump’s insistence on building a US–Mexico border wall halted work on a critical safety upgrade at the shipyard, which processes nuclear waste from Navy submarines, among other tasks. To fund the border wall, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper diverted $3.6 billion that Congress had authorized for construction projects at 127 military facilities in the United States and overseas, an apparent violation of Congress’s constitutional authority over federal spending.

The Trump administration gives no sign of funding similar protections for naval facilities in Norfolk, all of which are threatened by sea-level rise. “A detailed study in 2014 by the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center identified about 1.5 feet of sea-level rise as a ‘tipping point’ for [Naval Station Norfolk] that would dramatically increase the risk of serious damage to infrastructure,” InsideClimate News has reported. “But there is no plan to address this level of rise, which scientists expect within a few decades.” (Flooding by seawater is far more destructive than fresh-water flooding because of salt-caused corrosion and electrical shorts.)

Phillips says, “The Navy places less value on infrastructure. They value ships, aircraft, weapons. I was one of those people — as a commanding officer, I worried about being able to sail into port and connect up to the electricity, Internet, water and sewer, and that’s all we needed.” She adds, “Part of it too is the near-term operational needs of the service. Navy leaders are going to be focused on near-term readiness” rather than the challenges posed by climate change.

There are only a few roads that can transport personnel and equipment to and from Naval Station Norfolk, which occupies a spit of tabletop-flat land that is surrounded by water on three sides. Calculations by the First Street Foundation project that those roads will increasingly be inundated by rising sea levels in the years ahead.

A 2017 study by First Street Foundation of flooding projections for Norfolk and Norfolk Naval Station paints a grim picture for the future. The intersection of West Bay Avenue and Granby Street, a four-lane access road to the naval station, currently faces significant flooding just from high tides in the Chesapeake Bay six days a year. By 2029, that rate of tidal flooding is projected to more than double — to 14 days a year. Meanwhile, at the intersection of Hampton Boulevard, another major access route, and 49th Street near the Naval Facilities Engineering Command, tidal flooding is expected 31 days this year, but 174 days a decade hence. Things are even worse slightly south at Hampton Boulevard and Lexan Avenue, where tidal flooding this year will happen 188 days this year and 276 days in 2029. Worse yet, First Street projects that in 10 years, if Norfolk and Hampton Roads are hit with a Category 4 hurricane (as was threatened by Hurricane Dorian this month), almost the entire city, including Naval Station Norfolk, would be under at least three feet of water from the tidal surge.

Because the climate threat to Naval Station Norfolk, though extreme, is by no means unique, Congress has demanded that the Pentagon evaluate how threatened all US military bases are by sea-level rise, hurricanes, and other climate impacts. The Pentagon, however, has slow-walked its response. Rep. Jim Langevin, head of the House Armed Services Committee’s subcommittee on emerging threats, and chairman Smith co-authored a letter this spring to then–Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan calling for a detailed report on the climate risks to military bases and the costs of protecting or relocating them. When the Pentagon’s response was long on rhetoric but short on specifics, Langevin fired back, telling Federal News Network, “Like a student rushing to finish a term paper, the Dept. of Defense made a desperate attempt to address the concerns I raised about their climate report before the Secretary testified. When it comes to our national security, however, there are no ‘A’s for effort.’ The Department’s methodology remains opaque. The revised report continues to leave off overseas bases, and it fails to include massive military installations … Most importantly, it continues to lack any assessment of the funds Congress will need to appropriate to mitigate the ever-increasing risks to our service members.”

Meanwhile, projections of future sea-level rise are growing increasingly dire. In August, a peer-reviewed study in Nature Geoscience tracking the alarming effects of human-caused climate change on the West Antarctic ice sheet confirmed that it continues to melt at an alarming rate. A complete melting of that ice sheet would raise global sea levels by roughly 10 feet — more than enough to submerge not only Naval Station Norfolk but also large parts of many of the world’s coastal cities, including Washington, New York, Miami, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Mumbai, and Rio de Janeiro.

Harold Wanless, emeritus professor of the geology department at the University of Miami and an expert on ice melt and sea-level rise, warns that the historical record suggests that ice melting and sea-level rise will not proceed linearly but in pulses. The earth is entering such a pulse now, Wanless believes, so it may not be decades before Norfolk and its naval installations experience larger, more frequent, and more debilitating flooding. Those impacts could occur much sooner, Wanless cautions, perhaps as soon as the 2020s. Under such a scenario, protecting low-lying regions such as Norfolk could become practically and financially impossible; managed retreat may be the only real option. “Places like Norfolk need to recognize this fact,” says Wanless, “or we’ll just have local, state, and federal governments pouring money into the ocean.”

The world will get a better sense of how fast and how far sea levels will rise on September 25, when scientists with the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change release their latest report. The Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate will discuss, among other subjects, what is happening to the planet’s glacial and polar ice — the cryosphere, in scientific jargon — and what that portends for sea-level rise. A leaked early draft of the report, obtained by Agence France-Presse, warned that hundreds of millions of coastal residents around the world could be displaced by rising seas unless drastic action is taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And even if emissions are slashed, the draft declared, the inertia of the climate system means that many coastal regions and island nations will experience “extreme sea level events” — that is, storm surges and flooding — every year by 2050.

That leaked draft is not the last word on sea-level rise; the IPCC press office warns that its findings may change during negotiations among governments and scientists September 21 to 23 to finalize the official text. But the history of climate science is clear: For decades, scientists have generally underestimated how bad things could get, and how soon. For the U.S. Navy, the better course may be to forget about basing its Second Fleet in Norfolk in order to patrol the melting Arctic. What U.S. national security actually requires is doing everything possible to reverse or slow the climate crisis.

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