Retired General: 'Our Bases and Stations on the Coast Are Going Underwater'

Tangier Island's coast, with rising waters

This past July, in a Congressional hearing on “The Status and Outlook for U.S. and North American Energy and Resource Security,” retired Marine Brigadier General Stephen A. Cheney offered a dire warning for many current military bases in coastal locations.  

From the tactical side our bases and stations on the coast are going underwater. Norfolk [in Virginia] is the prime example. It’s closed dozens of times a year now because of flooding both from rain and sea level rise,” Cheney explained. “We’re going to have to talk about relocation of our bases and stations that are on the coast.”

Cheney also made it clear that he believes in climate change.

Climate change is already affecting security both at home and around the world, so we must make sure that we take the greenhouse gas emissions from energy into account, lest we trade increased energy security today for a warmer, more unstable world in the future.”

General Cheney certainly isn’t the first to warn of the security implications of climate change. Trump's Secretary of Defense James Mattis admitted as much in written testimony to Democratic Senators, writing, “Climate change is impacting stability in areas of the world where our troops are operating today.” An article in Navy Times last year noted that 128 military bases are at risk from sea level rise.

Sea level rise and coastal flooding represent a well-documented threat to national security. Yet less than a month after General Cheney’s testimony in Congress, the Trump administration rolled back an Obama-era regulation designed to “improve the resilience of communities and federal assets against the impacts of flooding.”

Rafael Lemaitre was the the public affairs director for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in the Obama administration and criticized this latest regulatory rollback in comments to The Hill.

Eliminating this requirement is self-defeating,” Lemaitre said. “We can either build smarter now, or put taxpayers on the hook to pay exponentially more when it floods. And it will.”

While Trump Denies Reality, Flooding Makes Believers Out of Many

Though climate science denial is the rule in the White House, some Republicans who represent coastal districts have been swayed by the recurring floods. Representative Carlos Curbelo (R-FL) represents southern Florida, where the region's regular flooding has him convinced that climate change is happening now.

Sea level rise and the risk of severe flooding are a reality for communities across the country,” Curbelo said in a statement in response to Trump rolling back the regulation. “This Executive Order is not fiscally conservative, it's irresponsible, and it will lead to taxpayer dollars being wasted on projects that may not be built to endure the flooding we are already seeing and know is only going to get worse.”

The draft climate report recently published by The New York Times estimates that sea level rise of 4 to 7 inches is “very likely” by 2030. This would make a noticeable difference in southern Florida. The same draft report estimates a potential for up to 8 feet of sea level rise by 2100. That would eliminate a lot of Rep. Curbelo’s district.

The city of Miami has been very proactive in dealing with the very real issue of sea level rise and is spending approximately a half billion dollars on new pumps to address flooding. Despite this investment, a recent heavy rain storm, combined with high tides, left streets flooded. The Washington Post reported it as an “absurd” amount of rainfall.

However, similar “absurd” rainfall events have happened recently across the country, including one that flooded New Orleans — another city staring down the reality of sea level rise.

As General Cheney pointed out in his Congressional testimony, they certainly believe in the issue in Norfolk, Viriginia — home to the largest U.S. naval base in the world. A recent feature in Trust magazine notes that the city of Norfolk hired a Dutch consulting firm to design a plan to address sea level rise.

However, the plan would require $1 billion investment and would only protect against one foot of additional sea level rise, which is the best-case scenario for the year 2100 in almost all predictions. No one is even talking about what it would cost to prepare for the worst-case scenarios.

Tangier Island: Canary on the Coast

As the scientific evidence continues to warn us of devastating sea level rise and the military counsels us that coastal flooding is shutting down naval bases, it doesn’t seem like many people — including the U.S. President — are taking it seriously.

Tangier Island in Chesapeake Bay sits on the leading edge of this issue. Bay waters have steadily eroded away the land on which this small community has lived for hundreds of years. Since the 1850s Tangier has reportedly shrunk in size by about two-thirds. The Army Corps of Engineers has estimated that the island might have as little as 25 years left. But the islanders famously don’t believe in sea level rise. And the President has told them not to worry about a thing.

Residents of Tangier are pretty confident that erosion, not climate change, is the cause of their woes, as island resident Lonnie Miller explained to Public Radio International.

So are we going to get more street tides, tides on the street?” Miller asked  “Yes. But is it global warming? No.”

This “head in the rapidly washing away sand” approach has opened up the residents of Tangier Island to ridicule from some — but aren’t they just doing what much of the rest of the country is doing? Asking for a wall to keep the ocean at bay while not acknowledging that the ocean is rising?

Perhaps not surprisingly, the mayor of Tangier Island is a Trump supporter … but not scientist.

I’m not a scientist, but I’m a keen observer,” Mayor Eskridge said. “If sea-level rise is occurring, why am I not seeing signs of it?”

His island is literally being washed away by sea level rise and he can’t see any signs of it. And yet while he can’t see signs of sea level rise, he is asking for the government to pay for engineering solutions to protect his island — from sea level rise.

David Schulte, a marine biologist with the Army Corps of Engineers, explained the situation to The New York Times last year, saying,“The Outer Banks, the Delmarva Peninsula, Long Island, the Jersey Shore — they’re in the same boat. It’s going to just take a little longer for them to get to where Tangier is now.”

While it may be easy to point a finger at the mayor of Tangier Island, it might be better to take a hard look at the many other, larger coastal communities struggling to keep up with rising seas — and schedule that Hawaiian vacation for sooner, rather than later.

Main image: Tangier Island Credit: Chesapeake Bay ProgramCC BY-NC 2.0