Climate Change Sank My Battleship?
The USS North Carolina survived World War II, but now its captain’s mission is to protect it from storm surges and sea level rise.
After earning 15 battle stars in the Pacific during World War II, the USS North Carolina went into retirement in 1947. Now, more than 70 years later, the battleship finds itself in the crosshairs of climate change. Moored on the Cape Fear River in its namesake state, it’s been enduring the threats of hurricanes, storm surges, and—ironically enough for a ship—sea level rise.
“When I started at the battleship, we had minor problems with flooding,” says retired U.S. Navy Captain Terry Bragg, who became the executive director of the Battleship North Carolina, a public attraction located across the river from downtown Wilmington, in 2008. But after taking the helm of this floating memorial, Bragg began to notice that the floods affecting the ship, along with its visitor center and parking lot, seemed to be getting worse. So he started looking into flooding records for the area and found that Wilmington had experienced six floods during the 1940s and four in the 1950s. “Between 2010 and 2015, we had 92,” he says. “Ninety-two. In five years.”
The 35,000-ton battleship was built to withstand the high seas, but these floods and storm surges are taking their toll. When Hurricane Florence slammed into the East Coast last September, river water seeped through some of the ship’s older seams, flooding the port bow and stern. While the hurricane’s effect on the ship was minor, the visitor center suffered $2 million in damage. The following month, Hurricane Michael battered the region, reaching wind speeds as high as 175 miles an hour and creating a storm surge of 14 feet. The wind and water from Michael, which was a tropical storm by the time it reached North Carolina, caused the battleship to rise out of its cradle in the sand and keel over to its starboard side. With so much pressure on its hull, the USS North Carolina was lucky it didn’t incur irreparable damage.
Bragg raised $9 million to build a cofferdam around the battleship that allows water to be pumped away from it. Soon after completion in 2018, the cofferdam proved invaluable during Hurricane Florence as it helped keep oily water that was spilling from the ship from reaching the rest of the river. Bragg has also launched a $2 million campaign called Living With Water that later this year will begin to give the shoreline around the museum and memorial a makeover using native plants, rocks, and sand. So-called living shorelines help filter floodwaters, increase wetland habitat, and act as natural buffers against rising seas and storm surges.
Such defensive strategies are effective stopgaps, but Ryan Boyles, deputy director of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Southeast Climate Adaptation Science Center, says the projects will need regular updates as the effects of climate change intensify. “Even though the ship floats, the infrastructure that provides access to it, like the parking lots and roads, will have to continuously be managed because the ocean levels will continue to change,” he says. “And that can put a strain on limited budgets.”
The battleship is also contributing to the fight against climate change by inspiring the next generation of problem solvers. Aboard the USS North Carolina, visiting school groups learn not only about WWII history, maritime communication, and the daily life of a sailor, but also about how a global environmental problem is barraging the ship and the local landscape. This is an important lesson in a state still coming to grips with its place on the front lines of climate change.
Jettisoning the Data
A 2010 report produced by North Carolina’s Coastal Resources Commission found that sea levels along the state’s coastline could rise by up to 39 inches by the end of the century. Such a scenario would put an estimated 2,000 square miles of coastal lands under the Atlantic. However, in 2012 the state passed a widely criticized law, called H.B. 819, that banned the governmental use of that report in its policy making. The law also requires that the state accept only those models that use the rate of sea level rise from the past 100 years in its projections, thus disregarding the accelerating effects of climate change. Critics, including Stephen Colbert, called it “outlawing science” and warned that H.B. 819 would prevent state and local officials from proactively preparing for what’s to come.
The Coastal Resources Commission published another report in 2015 projecting that sea levels could rise six to eight inches over the next three decades ( bad news similar to that of the first report, but on a shorter timeline). Thanks to the 2012 anti-science law, state agencies had been banned from making policies on sea level change until 2016. Almost two years after coming into office in 2017, Governor Roy Cooper issued an executive order directing the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality to develop a Climate Risk Assessment and Resiliency Plan by March 2020.
“We’ve got some parts of the government talking about [sea level rise] and taking it seriously,” says Kym Hunter, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC). “At the same time, we have other government agencies not using up-to-date data.” Hunter is referring to a lawsuit the SELC has filed against the North Carolina Department of Transportation concerning the proposed construction of the Mid-Currituck Bridge, which would span seven miles between the mainland and an area of the northern Outer Banks known for wild horses. The SELC says the draft environmental impact statement was “riddled with myriad errors, omissions, and misrepresentations,” that it ignored the most current sea level science, and that it failed to analyze the bridge’s impacts on wildlife habitat and air quality.
The SELC made similar allegations about a different proposed bridge project, the Cape Fear Crossing, which would span the river just a few miles north of the USS North Carolina. In both cases, the state government used data collected back in 2008 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Army Corps told Bragg that it attributes the region’s flooding problems to insufficient drainage and the release of water from inland lakes and dams.
Both the National Weather Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have reported higher-than-average flooding events in North Carolina and along the Eastern Seaboard, and both consider climate change a contributor. According to the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, sea levels off the North Carolina coast are expected to rise by as much as 3.3 feet by 2100. That doesn’t bode well for structures on the shoreline—whether they are bridges, beach houses, or battleships.
Bracing for Impact
The USS North Carolina is not the only military installation in the region dealing with climate change. A 2018 Department of Defense report notes that sea level rise has contributed to more frequent and severe floods at the Langley–Eustis Air Force and Army Base and at Naval Station Norfolk, both in Virginia, which makes them increasingly vulnerable to coastal storms. The Defense Department says it is updating its bases to be more climate resilient by raising floor elevations, installing door dams to reduce sandbag use, and adding oyster reefs to create living shorelines.
Other resiliency measures include water monitoring, fish passages, and storm drains, but Roger Shew, a lecturer in the Department of Earth and Ocean Sciences at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, considers these just temporary Band-Aids for a worsening problem. He says even moderate sea level rise threatens the local ecosystem, which would lead to loss of land and marine species such as Atlantic puffins, blue crabs, and black sea bass. “We need a more comprehensive approach,” Shew says.
Indeed the state does, but it’s at least starting to move in the right direction. Several regional efforts are also underway, including the Community Resilience Pilot Project in New Hanover County (where the U.S.S. North Carolina resides) to look at the impact of sea level rise on infrastructure and the potential of saltwater contaminating inland aquifers. The North Carolina Coastal Federation has also created a Coastal Resilience Initiative in which stakeholders have started meeting to determine how to move forward on Governor Cooper’s executive order.
Meanwhile, aboard the USS North Carolina, Bragg continues to monitor sea level data, to raise funds for the memorial’s living shoreline, and to further incorporate climate change into the ship’s educational programs.
“I'm a retired Navy captain. My job was to always complete a mission,” he says. “Now, protecting this battleship is my mission.”