Batten Down the Hatches

The world’s largest naval base is a major flood risk in a warming world.

Hurricane Joaquin as seen from NOAA’s GOES-West satellite on October 1
Credit: Photo: NOAA

Hurricane Joaquin brought 120-miles-per-hour winds to the Bahamas on Thursday morning and continued to pummel the Caribbean on Friday after strengthening from category 3 to category 4. Although early fears that Joaquin could make landfall along the eastern seaboard have now eased, the storm is still likely to cause major storm surges and potentially flooding in southern Virginia. The U.S. Navy ought to be very worried.

Naval Station Norfolk—by far the largest naval base in the world—is the nerve center of the U.S. military’s seagoing operations, hosting 75 ships and 134 aircraft. During crowded times, you can see 14 massive aircraft carriers sitting deck-to-deck at the piers.

Whoever chose the location of the station, perched on a curl of land northwest of Virginia Beach, didn’t foresee climate change. (The base was built in the early 1900s.) The city of Norfolk is only seven feet above sea level, and 70 percent of the naval station is below an elevation of 13 feet. The area borders a piece of “land” so naturally low and damp that it’s known as the Great Dismal Swamp, but the entire place is extremely prone to flooding—according to state forecasts, a category 3 storm could inundate both the city and the naval station. In 2003, Hurricane Isabel threatened the base, flooding 6 percent of the land around it, even though the storm surge was only moderate. Hurricanes Ida (2009) and Irene (2011) also pushed Norfolk’s water levels to dangerous heights.

An aerial view of Naval Station Norfolk
Credit: Photo: U.S. Navy

The Pentagon is aware of the problem. In 2013, a trio of army engineers published a paper analyzing Naval Station Norfolk’s vulnerability to storm surge. They found that a 100-year storm—the powerful kind that Norfolk should expect to see about once per century—would flood 60 percent of the base.

It will get far worse. Sea-level rise and ever-intensifying storms threaten to make the situation untenable. At Sewells Point, Norfolk, the sea has risen 14.5 inches in the past 80 years and continues to rise approximately 0.18 inches per year. This is the fastest rate of increase along the eastern seaboard. By 2100, the sea level around Norfolk could climb by as much as five feet due to climate change. And the surrounding land is subsiding at the same time, exacerbating the problem. If the sea level rises as much as climatologists fear, a major storm will put 80 percent of Naval Station Norfolk underwater.

Should disaster strike and send Norfolk under, it would not be the first time Mother Nature has taken a military base. As Robert Farley explained in Medium last year, the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo destroyed Clark Air base in the Philippines. Past hurricanes have wounded the Homestead and Keesler air force bases in Florida and Mississippi, respectively. Even so, we can’t afford to lose the country’s best-equipped naval station.

Ships moored at Naval Station Norfolk during Hurricane Irene
Credit: Photo: U.S. Navy

If anyone knows how to batten down the hatches, it’s the navy. Military forecasters will monitor Hurricane Joaquin as it moves northward, deciding whether it’s safer for the warships to remain in port or head east ahead of the storm’s arrival. It’s much harder, however, to protect the navy’s land-based assets: the shipyard, the hospital, and the homes of 75,000 enlisted men and women and civilian workers. It looks like Joaquin will not be the big one, but it will be big enough to cause problem. As of now, the navy seems to have lots of questions but no answers.

“It's the biggest navy base in the world, and it's going to have to be relocated,” former Vice President Al Gore told Rolling Stone last year. "It's just a question of when.”

How does this afternoon look?

This article was originally published on onEarth, which is no longer in publication. onEarth was founded in 1979 as the Amicus Journal, an independent magazine of thought and opinion on the environment. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. This article is available for online republication by news media outlets or nonprofits under these conditions: The writer(s) must be credited with a byline; you must note prominently that the article was originally published by and link to the original; the article cannot be edited (beyond simple things such grammar); you can’t resell the article in any form or grant republishing rights to other outlets; you can’t republish our material wholesale or automatically—you need to select articles individually; you can’t republish the photos or graphics on our site without specific permission; you should drop us a note to let us know when you’ve used one of our articles.

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