Rocket Launches and Rising Seas
At NASA, we’re not immune to effects of climate change. The seas are rising at NASA coastal centers – the direct result of warming global temperatures caused by human activity. Several of our centers and facilities were built near the coast, where there aren’t as many neighbors, as a safety precaution. But now the tides have turned and as sea levels rise, these facilities are at greater risk of flooding and storms.
Global sea level is increasing every year by 3.3 millimeters, or just over an eighth of an inch, and the rate of rise is speeding up over time. The centers within range of rising waters are taking various approaches to protect against future damage.
Kennedy Space Center in Florida is the home of historic launchpad 39A, where Apollo astronauts first lifted off for their journey to the Moon. The launchpad is expected to flood periodically from now on.
Like Kennedy, Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Virginia has its launchpads and buildings within a few hundred feet of the Atlantic Ocean. Both locations have resorted to replenishing the beaches with sand as a natural barrier to the sea.
Native vegetation is planted to help hold the sand in place, but it needs to be replenished every few years.
At the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, instead of building up the ground, we’re hardening buildings and moving operations to less flood-prone elevations. The center is bounded by two rivers and the Chesapeake Bay.
The effects of sea level rise extend far beyond flooding during high tides. Higher seas can drive larger and more intense storm surges – the waves of water brought by tropical storms.
In 2017, Hurricane Harvey brought flooding to the astronaut training facility at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Now we have installed flood resistant doors, increased water intake systems, and raised guard shacks to prevent interruptions to operations, which include astronaut training and mission control.
Our only facility that sits below sea level already is Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. Onsite pumping systems protected the 43-acre building, which has housed Saturn rockets and the Space Launch System, from Hurricane Katrina. Since then, we’ve reinforced the pumping system so it can now handle double the water capacity.
Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley is going one step farther and gradually relocating farther south and to several feet higher in elevation to avoid the rising waters of the San Francisco Bay.
Understanding how fast and where seas will rise is crucial to adapting our lives to our changing planet.
We have a long-standing history of tracking sea level rise, through satellites like the TOPEX-Poseidon and the Jason series, working alongside partner agencies from the United States and other countries.
We just launched the Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich satellite—a U.S.-European partnership—which will use electromagnetic signals bouncing off Earth’s surface to make some of the most accurate measurements of sea levels to date.
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This level reach of blue is not my sea;
Here are sweet waters, pretty in the sun,
Whose quiet ripples meet obediently
A marked and measured line, one after one.
This is no sea of mine. that humbly laves
Untroubled sands, spread glittering and warm.
I have a need of wilder, crueler waves;
They sicken of the calm, who knew the storm.
So let a love beat over me again,
Loosing its million desperate breakers wide;
Sudden and terrible to rise and wane;
Roaring the heavens apart; a reckless tide
That casts upon the heart, as it recedes,
Splinters and spars and dripping, salty weeds.
- Dorothy Parker, Fair Weather
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can i say goodnight to you at the shore?
if the waves come rolling back to me
will you meet me at the shore
your ship long gone
drowned in the storm
underneath a different moon
and as true night falls
over this dark mirror
will you still remember
the way back home
the sand beneath your feet
in the wreckage of your boat
can you still spread your wings
rise up like the moon
remember the maps in the stars
and did you know
that i am still calling you home
so you can fall asleep
on the edge of night
and this might be
our last chance
to say goodbye
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