NASA Is preparing for the ravages of climate change
With some two thirds of NASA’s assets within 16 feet of sea level—including Kennedy Space Center in Florida and Johnson Space Center in Houston—hurricanes, flood risks, and rising seas are giving the agency much to worry about. “If we look globally and domestically, we have put very valuable assets, including runways and launchpads, in the coastal zone. I think NASA stepping forward with the precision of an engineering-oriented agency is very exciting to see,” says Katharine Mach, a climate scientist at the University of Miami, who’s unaffiliated with NASA and who served as a lead author of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest assessment report.
NASA’s action plan describes the costs of recent extreme weather events, likely worsened by climate change, that come with big bills for repair. Michoud Assembly Facility alone racked up nearly $400 million in costs following two hurricanes and a tornado. Recent hurricanes and flooding damaged other infrastructure, too, with multiple sites on the Gulf and East Coasts each suffering more than $100 million worth of damage. In Southern California, the 2009 Station Fire burned to within a meter of the perimeter of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which had to be closed. As an inland site, JPL could eventually have other climate problems to contend with as well, including droughts and heat waves.
While NASA would only move buildings or launch complexes as a very expensive last resort, the agency is working more on “structural hardening,” making buildings better able to withstand extreme weather or a loss of electricity, so that they can temporarily operate off the grid. “It can mean raising the elevation, adding pumping capacity, and putting up barriers. It can be about creating islands. It can be about creating autonomous infrastructure systems, like self-sufficient energy generation, as well as redundancies,” says Jesse Keenan, a social scientist at Tulane University with expertise on climate change adaptation and the built environment. (Keenan is unaffiliated with NASA’s report.)
According to the climate plan, any new infrastructure has to be sited above a 500-year floodplain, so those buildings won’t need such fortification for a long while. NASA also aims to develop redundancies, when possible, so that a critical mission doesn’t depend on a piece of equipment housed at a single vulnerable facility, for example.