Sea Level Rise Hits Home at NASA

Watching Waters Rise Right Outside the Front Door

The sun rises over the coast at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center

The Sun rises at Kennedy Space Center. The sea is steadily doing the same.
(Photo by NASA/Andres Adorno)

By Michael Carlowicz Design by Joshua Stevens & Paul Przyborski August 26, 2015

For the past two centuries, two trends have been steady and clear around the United States. Sea level has been rising, and more people have been moving closer to the coast.

As the ocean has warmed, polar ice has melted, and porous landmasses have subsided, global mean sea level has risen by 8 inches (20 centimeters) since 1870. The rate of sea level rise is faster now than at any time in the past 2,000 years, and that rate has doubled in the past two decades.

Chart of sea level rise, 1880-2014

Tide gauges have been used to measure sea level for more than 130 years. Satellite measurements now complement the historical record. (NASA Earth Observatory image by Joshua Stevens, based on data from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization and NOAA)

That has not stopped people from buying and building along the coast. About 55 to 60 percent of U.S. citizens live in counties touching the Atlantic or Pacific Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico, or the Great Lakes. A recent study by business and finance leaders found that $66 billion to $106 billion worth of coastal property is likely to sit below sea level by 2050.

The nation’s problem is also NASA’s problem, and not just because several satellites and hundreds of Earth scientists are monitoring the rising seas. Sea level rise hits especially close to home because half to two-thirds of NASA’s infrastructure and assets stand within 16 feet (5 meters) of sea level. With at least $32 billion in laboratories, launch pads, airfields, testing facilities, data centers, and other infrastructure spread out across 330 square miles (850 square kilometers)—plus 60,000 employees—NASA has an awful lot of people and property in harm’s way.

Map of population density in the lower 48 United States

It is estimated that more than 50 percent of the United States population lives in coastal counties. (NASA Earth Observatory map by Joshua Stevens, using data from the NASA Socioeconomic Data Applications Center)

For NASA climatologist Cynthia Rosenzweig, the urgency of the problem was crystallized in the summer of 2009. As part of a climate change preparedness workshop, she joined other scientists, engineers, facility managers, and administrators on a tour of launch pads 39A and B at Kennedy Space Center. Since the Apollo-Saturn rocket days, and through 25 years of space shuttles, those two launch pads have been critical to NASA’s mission.

But when Rosenzweig got off the bus and looked around, she could see that the shrinking dunes and damaged shoreline were just a stone’s throw from the launch pads.

“Every NASA center has its own set of vulnerabilities, and some are more at risk than others,” Rosenzweig said. “But sea level rise is a very real challenge for all of the centers along the coast.”

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