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Will dune loss make Kennedy Space Center retreat?

If sea-level rise around the Kennedy Space Center becomes insurmountable, it may eventually have to move roads, utilities, and perhaps even launch pads—a costly and complex possibility, says John Jaeger. Above, the Space Shuttle Atlantis lifts off from Kennedy Space Center in 2011. (Credit: Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley/Released via Official U.S. Navy Page/Flickr)

Left unchecked, sand dune erosion brought on by climate change could affect operations at the Kennedy Space Center within the next decade, experts warn.

Researchers have been studying Cape Canaveral’s dunes and beach since 2009 and say the impacts became most apparent after Hurricane Sandy.


“We were a little blind to it, like pre-Katrina New Orleans,” says Peter Adams, assistant professor of geological sciences at University of Florida. “Now that we’ve seen it, we’re sensitive to it.”

“Sandy got a lot of press up north, but it really did a tremendous amount of damage at Cape Canaveral,” says John Jaeger, associate professor of geology. “Areas that had previously been relatively stable for decades…suddenly they were gone.”

A combination of climate change-related sea-level rise and increased wave energy is almost certainly to blame, Adams says. “Certainly it’s occurring now. Is it affecting NASA infrastructure? The answer is yes.”

Already apparent damage:

  • Dunes that historically protected the Kennedy Space Center from high seas even during the worst storms were leveled during Tropical Storm Fay in 2008, Hurricane Irene in 2011, and Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
  • A stretch of beachfront railroad track built by NASA in the early 1960s that runs parallel to the shoreline has been topped by waves repeatedly during recent storms. Though idle now—one vulnerable section has even been removed to make room for protective, manufactured dunes—the track serves as a useful yardstick for the Atlantic Ocean’s growing incursions. One 2010 NASA report predicts it will be permanently breached by 2016.
  • After Sandy, one washed-out section of shoreline was so close to a launch pad at adjacent Cape Canaveral Air Force Station that a fence surrounding the pad was left teetering and near collapse.

NASA is taking the situation seriously and has plans for dealing with it, says Nancy Bray, director of center operations for the Kennedy Space Center. A similar plan has been prepared for NASA’s Wallops Island Flight Facility in Virginia, though Wallops has not yet seen the effects that have shown up at Kennedy.

“We do consider sea-level rise and climate change to be urgent,” she says.

Saltwater on the launchpad

The new research came about after NASA partnered with the US Geological Survey and University of Florida to figure out why chronic erosion was happening along a roughly six-mile stretch of beach between launch pads 39A and 39B—the ones used for Space Shuttle and Apollo missions.

The problem had been occurring for years but seemed to be growing worse, beginning with the spate of hurricanes that struck Florida in 2004.

Researchers determined the cause was a gap in a near-shore sandbar that funnels the sea toward that section of beach. Faced with the question of what was causing the increased vulnerability in that part of the shoreline, they soon came to the conclusion that the culprits were sea-level rise and wave climate change.

As for what could be at risk next, the first item on the list is a two-lane road the runs parallel to and slightly inland from the railroad track. Buried beneath it are electrical power lines and pipelines used to transport liquefied gasses.

In the short term, NASA has built new dunes to replace the natural ones that were lost on the threatened section of shoreline.

“Without that secondary dune line, we could have saltwater intrusion at the launch pad,” Bray says.

Looking to the future, the agency is taking an approach it calls “managed retreat.” That means if sea-level rise becomes insurmountable, it may eventually have to move roads, utilities, and perhaps even launch pads—a costly and complex possibility.

“When you put immovable infrastructure right next to a dynamic environment,” Jaeger says, “something has to give.”

Source: University of Florida