U.S. Nuclear Fleet's Dry Docks at Risk From Climate Change

The United State nuclear fleet is experiencing a new threat: rising sea levels and storm surges that could destroy their dry docks.

The U.S. nuclear fleet dry docks are threatened by climate change. In this image, you can see 4 ships, highlighted in red, that are part of the fleet. IMG credit: InsideClimate News

The Naval shipyard in Chesapeake Bay, VA, Norfolk Naval Shipyard, has been rebuilt many times after it has been destroyed in battle. However, it now faces a new, more permanent threat: climate change.


This station is essential to maintaining the U.S. nuclear fleet, and is the only government-run facility on the east coast that can host the nation's 11 aircraft carriers. Any damage to the facility could hurt the Pentagon's humanitarian and military efforts. In fact, the NOAA predicts that by the end of the century the station will be completely underwater. Ray Mabus, the Navy secretary under Former President Obama stated that the station will disappear unless the Pentagon acts now.



The Shipyard's Vulnerability

The shipyard's location makes it extremely susceptible to sea level rise; sea level around the base has risen 1.5 feet in the past century, which is double the global average. Major storms are an immediate threat that climate change is increasing

"It would have the potential for serious, if not catastrophic damage, and it would certainly put the shipyard out of business for some amount of time. That has implications not just for the shipyard, but for us, for the Navy."

said Mabus.


The five dry docks particularly vulnerable to climate change. Dry docks are basins in the water that ships can dock into, and then are sealed off and removed of water so ships can be repaired for months on end. The ships's expensive electronics are often left open and exposed to flooding during these repairs.

Dry docks, like the one shown in this photo, allow crew members to work on a vessel on dry land without having to raise it with a crane (one wall can open up to let water in). If a dry dock were to be flooded, it could damage opened up parts of a vessel. IMG credit: Richard Chaffee/U.S. Navy

A 2017 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) stated that the dry docks "were not designed to accommodate the threats" of climate change and rising sea levels. Navy officials warned the GAO that flooding would cause extensive damage to ships in a dry dock. The GAO said that flooding is already contributing to delays in ship repairs.



Action Being Taken to Protect Dry Docks

The Navy has begun elevating expensive machinery and has erected temporary flood walls. The Navy also submitted a $21 billion, 20-year plan to modernize four shipyards, including a more permanent barrier and other projects addressing flooding. However, these projects have not yet been approved.


Under the current Trump Administration, military commanders that know the risks climate change poses to their base, but are afraid to work openly on it. The Department of Defense secretary, James Mattis, identified climate change as an issue to national security and

"The Department should be prepared to mitigate any consequences of a changing climate, including ensuring that our shipyards and installations will continue to function as required."

However, there are rumors that Mattis is on the way out, and that could deal damage to the Pentagon's efforts on fighting climate change.


Thankfully, Congress voted earlier this year to require any military construction in a floodplain to be elevated 2 feet above the flood level.



What would happen to Norfolk Shipyard?

To find out what can happen to Norfolk Shipyard, we can look into the past at Hurricane Michael in October. Hurricane Michael destroyed most of Tyndall Air Force Base. Tyndall is was a coastal military base similar to Norfolk Shipyard. Hurricane Michael damaged more than a dozen stealth fighters that were undergoing maintenance, similar to what could happen at Norfolk Shipyard.


Officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency used a computer simulation to see what a Category 4 hurricane could do to the shipyard. They found that communications would be cut out, the dry docks would be completely flooded and as a result internal computers of ships destroyed.


The Navy declined to disclose the exact amount of damage to the base under the scenario, but National Hazard Maps show that the entire facility could go underwater from that type of storm surge.


GIF credit: Paul Horn/InsideClimate News

In 2009, a dry dock in the naval base experienced 3,000 gallons of flooding per minute. In 2016 and 2017, the naval base had to remove capstans from the submarines in case they were damaged. This happened multiple times and the work cost over $100,000. In 2016, Hurricane Matthew caused $1.2 million in damages. These damages put even more stress on aged machines.


IMG credit: NOAA


Every Year the Risk Increases

A decade ago, the chief of naval operations commissioned the National Research Council to study the implications of climate change on the Navy's mission. The 2011 report warned that global warming would strain the service's capabilities. More severe weather would trigger famine and mass migration, requiring more humanitarian aid. A thawing Arctic would stress the Navy's fleet by opening a vast new arena to police in particularly harsh conditions. Rising seas and harsher storms would put bases at risk: 56 facilities worth a combined $100 billion would be threatened by about 3 feet of sea level rise (the list has not been made public).


It also warned that the Navy needed to begin investing in protections immediately at facilities facing the greatest climate risks, and had only 10 to 20 years to begin work on the rest. Seven years later, there's been little progress, said retired Rear Adm. Jonathan White, who led the Navy's Task Force Climate Change before retiring in 2015. He also said in a statement,

"Every year you wait to make decisions and take actions, the risk goes up. And I think the expense also goes up."
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