Panel 1: “Federal Agency Vulnerability to Climate Change Risks:  What is at stake for the Hampton Roads Region?”

 The panel discussion started with each member giving some background information on the work they are doing relating to potential impacts from sea-level rise at their respective facilities.


Mr. Bundick’s job is to consider environmental involvement of any planned activities at the NASA / Wallops Island facility (Wallops).  This facility is located due west from Chincoteague, Virginia and is the only civilian run launch facility in the United States.  NASA/Wallops Island was established on July 4th, 1945 in response to Langley Research Center’s desire to find a safe location to test rockets.  It is a field base for Goddard Space Flight Center, which is a world leader in climate change and sea level rise research.  A number of other agencies have facilities within Wallops Island including NOAA, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Marine Science Consortium.  Wallops Island recently developed a 20-year Master Plan, and a long-term 50-year storm damage reduction plan. Five-thousand of the sixty-two hundred acre facility is considered at extreme risk to sea level rise.  Approximately 80% of the infrastructure, valued at over $1 billion, is located within 16 feet of sea level.  This makes the issue of protecting these investments against sea level rise a very high priority for Wallops Island.


Kevin Holcomb is a senior wildlife biologist at the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge (NWR).  The Chincoteague NWR is a 15,000-acre wildlife refuge located on the eastern shore.  As a member of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) his mission is to conserve fish and wildlife and enhance or preserve habitat for their long term viability.   Mr. Holcomb and his staff must balance the sometimes-competing interests of natural resource protection, sea level rise concerns, and the recreational use of the refuge for such activities as hunting, fishing, and wildlife observation.  A main concern is the maintenance of suitable saltwater, brackish, and freshwater habitats in the face of anticipated sea level rise.  The philosophy of the FWS is to allow natural processes to occur.  This means allowing the island to migrate as sea level rise occurs instead of employing measures such as beach re-nourishment and erosion control methods.  In light of this approach, their long-term plans incorporate such actions as obtaining additional lands to allow the marshlands to migrate west as sea levels rise.  The FWS is working with NASA, the National Park Service, and others to achieve their overall goals.


Joseph Bouchard began his presentation with some pointed remainders that sea level rise concerns have present day realities and are not just long-term issues.  Hurricane Isabel, a category 1 storm, resulted in 3 feet of sea level rise that caused extensive flooding in Hampton Roads military facilities.  The entire Hampton Roads area is highly vulnerable to storm surges and that will only become even more exasperated as sea level rise continues.  Given that military spending accounts for a significant portion of the area’s economy, the long-term viability of the military facilities is critical.  Mr. Bouchard then focused his attention on Naval Station Norfolk (NSN), a topic he has intimate knowledge of from his time as head of the facility.  An initial effort at the naval station analyzed adapting to a 1 ft. sea level rise, but they now realize that 1 ft. was not sufficient and a 5 ft. projection is far more likely.  The focus of the study was to analyze the base to ascertain the most vulnerable elements of infrastructure to help prioritize their efforts to mitigate for the projected sea level rise.  While he was head of the naval station, four of the piers replaced were design to account for sea level rise in an effort to keep the power lines, located under the pier, out of the water.  As Mr. Bouchard put it, salt water and high voltage power lines do not get along very well.   While Naval Station Norfolk is certainly at risk of sea level rise, Langley Air Force Base is even more vulnerable.  A standard high tide with a 4 foot sea level rise floods a significant portion of the facility, including portions of the runway.


David Young is the Director of Science at NASA’s Langley Research Center.  Mr. Young started his discussion by pointing out the seriousness of sea level rise in the eastern shore area of Virginia.  During the last century, relative sea level has risen approximately one foot in the Chesapeake representing nearly twice the global average.  The Langley Research Center is far from immune to the impacts from sea level rise and sustained serious flooding as a result of Hurricane Isabel.  The Center, and others, are using satellites to further understand earth sciences in an effort to improve their predictive sea level rise models.  They use the information gained from the satellites and the models to work with infrastructure and facility staff in NASA in an effort to make sound and reasoned strategic plans.  These plans will help determine where Langley Research Center can buffer resources effectively and efficiently.  Mr. Young and his staff use satellite information coupled with GIS tools to aid in determining projected flooding in various scenarios to ascertain where best to improve the existing facility to minimize flooding impacts.  This information is supplied to local communities, such as the City of Poquoson, to assist them in their planning efforts.


Once the panel had finished with their opening, the moderator asked the attendees for questions.  Mr. Young responded to the first question pertaining to the level of coordination between the different agencies that model climate change and whether there was inefficiencies in the duplicative efforts.  Mr. Young stated that while there is some coordination, that it was important to maintain a degree of independence.  This way, the results from the various models can be used as checks for accuracy.  While this inherently leads to some inefficiencies, it is necessary to maintain the validity of the models.  The second question dealt with how all of this information gets to local communities in a form that they can use.  This was answered by the panel as a whole.  The modeling information that NASA produces is public information and readily available, but not necessarily in an easy to understand form.  NASA has held workshops to reach facility staff in an effort to make more localized models, that while intended originally for government facilities, have been supplied to local governments for their use.  The FWS supplies their information to local agencies and governments in a manner that is easier for them to understand and apply.  A member of the audience expressed some concern that supplying local officials with multiple model information can be interpreted by them that the scientists don’t really know what is happening and then use that as a reason to justify inaction.  Mr. Young answered by saying while that is a concern, as a scientist he has a responsibility to supply the best knowledge and explain the uncertainty inherent in that knowledge.


Using his question-asking-privilege as Moderator, Mr. Bouchard asked himself what DOD is doing going forward to address climate change.  He mentioned the Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program  that is conducting a series of studies aimed at analyzing the potential impacts sea level rise to military facilities.   Two major studies conducted for DOD have both recommended that base vulnerability to sea level rise should be considered if, or when, another round of BRAC reviews is conducted.  Mr. Bouchard strongly stated the it is not enough to spend money on protecting a base if the areas around the base are not doing the same thing. This refers to the role of the community in helping to protect local bases.  He gave the  example of a City of Hampton study that looked at roads most important to local bases and separate study determining the roads in Hampton most vulnerable to sea level rise.  They then combined the studies to determine which roads that are critical to the operation of the bases are most vulnerable to sea level rise.  This helped prioritize efforts to bolster or mitigate for these potential issues.


A member of the audience asked about whether new construction and infrastructure projects were being built with vulnerability to sea level rise in mind. Mr. Bundick responded by saying NASA has taken this into consideration and facilities that can logically be placed in areas that are not as vulnerable to sea level rise are sited there. He gave the example of a new mission control facility that was sited on the higher elevation portions of the main base.  He added that there are infrastructure items that need to be located near the launch facilities for safety reasons and are located there regardless of sea level rise vulnerability.  The next question focused on whether there was any ongoing coordination with other countries that have experience with flooding issues, such as the Netherlands.  Mr. Bouchard responded by stating that it certainly has been happening on the local level.  Hampton Roads has brought in experts from the Netherlands to assist in planning.  Additionally, Dutch companies have begun setting up offices in New Orleans, Florida and Virginia in anticipation of supplying engineering and planning expertise to communities dealing with threats of sea level rise.  The final question was more of a suggestion that NASA and DOD take a page from FWS’s playbook by focusing not on the relatively short-term sea level rise, but further down the road.  The panel responded by saying that unfortunately budgeting and the political climate is such that enacting strategic plans looking that far out is generally not feasible.  It then becomes an exercise in prioritizing the efforts on what funding and approval can be obtained.


About this Panel:

The purpose of this panel is to generate a discussion that identifies how federal agencies operating in or managing land in the Hampton Roads Region are assessing and preparing for climate change risks.


    • Josh Bundick, Lead, Environmental Planning for NASA/Wallops
    • Kevin Holcomb, Senior Wildlife Biologist, USFWS/Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge
  • Joe Bouchard, former head of Norfolk Naval Station and board member of the Hampton Roads Military and Federal Facilities Alliance.
  • David Young, NASA-Langley
  • Moderator: Joe Bouchard

Blog Post By: Jim Patterson


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