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Preparing U.S. military bases for sea level rise

A new project led by the University of Delaware (UD) will identify the best models to compute flood risks at coastal military bases where climate change is currently increasing the risk of flood damage from sea level rise and massive storm surges. The researchers will apply their findings to three military sites: the Naval Station Norfolk on the Atlantic Coast, the Tyndall Air Force Base on the Gulf Coast of Florida, and the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site on the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean.

“Many military installations are located along the coast, and they can’t be easily relocated. They need to be protected,” said project leader Jack Puleo, the chair of UD’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “To do that, we need to understand what the flooding risk is.” 

The experts will explore numerical models that calculate total water levels in the case of sea level rise, wind-induced surges, waves, and other environmental variables to determine which mitigation approaches perform best and are more cost-effective. The goal of the project will be to accurately predict the amount of flooding and damage a certain site may experience during hurricane impacts or other extreme weather events.

“But it’s not just getting wet that’s important. It’s about flooding duration and depth. If a prediction says there will be one inch of water on a roadway, maybe you don’t care as much. But if it says you’ll have one foot of water for multiple tidal cycles, that’s important to know. It could hamper critical services and evacuation,” Puleo explained.

The researchers will assess how much information is needed to make accurate predictions to help coastal military bases become more resilient in the face of climate change. The models that will be developed will have to be able to process information quickly enough to provide the military personnel the possibility to respond fast to events such as hurricanes or heavy precipitation in order to avoid the most disastrous consequences of such extreme weather events.

Ultimately, these models could also be useful to countries and communities without access to supercomputers or time to wait for slower models to be run, by helping them predict in advance the impacts of climate change-related weather events.

“We’re learning a lot about the models in terms of how they compare with each other,” said Stephanie Patch, an associate professor of Civil, Coastal, and Environmental Engineering at the University of South Alabama. “I hope the outcome of this work doesn’t just benefit these specific locations, but also military installations around the world and communities around the world. It’s so translatable and transferable. I would love to see an outcome of this project — even if it’s indirect — to learn enough to apply it worldwide on all of our coasts as climate changes.”

The research was funded by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD).

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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