NASA's response

The Kennedy Space Center is one of several NASA centers vulnerable to potential damage from future sea level rise.

With assets across the nation that are potentially vulnerable to the effects of climate change, NASA has begun an agency-wide effort to assess and respond to risks—one that could serve as a model for other scientific organizations [Rosenzweig et al., 2014]. The space agency is deploying its deep knowledge of Earth science and its detailed approach to risk assessment to prepare its coastal and inland properties for global change.

NASA’s $32 billion worth of laboratories, launch sites, airfields and other structures are spread over some 330 square miles, much of it in low-lying coastal areas, according to a 2014 review of the adaptation initiative [Rosenzweig et al., 2014]. Two thirds of these assets lie within five meters of sea level. The Kennedy Space Center, ground zero for the adaptation initiative, is already vulnerable to destructive storms and hurricanes; it includes the biologically diverse Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, and counts among its neighbors the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and the Canaveral National Sea Shore. NASA has begun to investigate potential damage from future sea level rise to the cape’s launch and landing facilities, industrial and office buildings and recreation areas. Investigations at Kennedy and other NASA centers across the country are being conducted by the Climate Adaptation Science Investigator Workgroup, or CASI. This collaboration, begun in 2010, includes NASA scientists as well as academic, private sector and nongovernmental organization experts.

CASI’s Coastal Centers Working Group conducted detailed assessments of the Ames Research Center in California, the Johnson Space Center in Texas, the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, and the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, along with the Langley Research Center and the Wallops Flight Facility, both in Virginia.

They found that significant changes in rainfall were likely for each of the coastal centers between now and the 2080s, with sea level rise possibly reaching 50 inches (127 centimeters) at Ames and approaching similar levels at the other centers.

The working group also found that climate and extreme weather already affect some centers, with sea level rise and storm surge among the factors affecting the highest number of centers.

Those effects include flooded roads, power loss, damages to assets and equipment stored in basements, strained heating and air conditioning systems and water shortages.

These effects can interfere with, or delay, progress in ongoing missions, as well as adversely affecting natural vegetation and endangered or threatened species.

The working group urged continued monitoring and continued development of wildfire risk analysis to account for increased heat waves, drought and lightning potential. Models of coastal ecosystem responses to climate change should be developed, the group said, along with continued toxicity studies for both humans and ecosystems.

Non-coastal facilities also are facing increased risk from the effects of climate change and extreme weather. The 2009 Station Fire—one of many California wildfires in recent years—burned to within a mile of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Pasadena, forcing evacuations. Tornadoes forced a 10-day closure of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, in 2011.

CASI relies upon NASA climate modeling to forecast possible changes, including the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies global climate model [Schmidt et al., 2006], ecosystem modeling based on Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) data [Nemani et al., 2009], and solar radiation modeling based on data from the Clouds and Earth’s Radiant Energy System (CERES) [Wielicki et al., 1996].

CASI’s data analysis has shown significant warming since the start of the 20th century at most NASA centers, as well as significant sea-level rise for all coastal centers [Rosenzweig et al., 2014]. The group’s projections show a 10-center average warming of 2.2 degrees Celsius by the 2050s compared with the 1980s, including a 1.9-degree rise at the Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, and a 2.6 degree rise at the Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio.

Meanwhile, over the same period, CASI projects sea level rise of 0.13 and 0.69 meters for NASA’s five coastal centers and other facilities [Rosenzweig et al., 2014]. Tide-gauge comparisons assuming lower-range sea level rise suggest a 50 percent increase in coastal flooding events for the Galveston/Johnson Space Center area and a two- to three-fold increase for the Langley Research Center and the Kennedy Space Center. Such flooding could become 10 times more frequent in the Ames Research Center area.

The CASI analyses are already prompting adaptive action at several centers. Ames is reducing its water use due to the risk of decreased availability. The Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, is replacing lawns with trees and natural vegetation to reduce runoff during heavy rainstorms. And a Kennedy Space Center team is examining the possibility of constructing a new inland dune system to protect against possible storm surge related to future sea level rise.

At the Johnson Space Center, construction of a new science building is taking place at 17 feet above sea level, while demolition of structures has begun in lower lying areas. The new building also is designed to meet “LEED Silver” environmental standards, with a greater than 10 percent reduction in square footage compared to the seven older buildings it will replace. Johnson has undertaken a variety of “sustainable” practices, from water and energy use to recycling, and constructed seven certified “green” buildings that use 100 percent green power.