Naval Academy Braces for Climate-Related Floods

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By Dean Scott

July 17 — The U.S. Naval Academy is racing to erect flood walls, berms and other bulwarks against tidal flooding and severe storms, its superintendent told House Democrats at a field hearing July 17.

Naval Academy Superintendent Vice Adm. Walter Carter Jr. also said the academy has established a committee to better prepare for tidal surges that scientists predict will increase with rising sea levels linked to climate change.

The hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee was held by Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.)., the committee's ranking member, one day after the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a report tracking rising global temperatures on land and in the oceans.

Carter testified that the campus has integrated flood walls into construction of major new projects, partly to protect existing buildings, most of which are more than 100 years old, including a chapel that opened in 1908 and nearby housing for midshipmen at the service academy, located in Annapolis where the field hearing was held.

The academy has spent $120 million since 2003 when Hurricane Isabel struck the academy to ensure that its buildings and other infrastructure “can handle rising waters and major events,” Carter said at hearing.

Pallone was joined at the hearing by two fellow energy committee members—Reps. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.) and John Sarbanes (D-Md.)—as well as Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.).

“We have to stop thinking about climate change as a partisan issue because it is impacting us all, regardless of political ideology,” Pallone said.

Range of Actions Undertaken 

Carter said the campus has adapted to increased flooding with new underground reservoirs that capture stormwater to be released later; identifying what existing walls of buildings can be modified as flood walls; and relocating heating, ventilation, and air conditioning units and cooling “chillers” to roof tops “where feasible.”

In addition, electricity, telephone and other communications lines—which have long been buried at the academy—have been relocated to run along the highest point inside the tunnels to protect them from rising water.

But not all of the older buildings at the academy, which dates to 1845, can be protected indefinitely, Carter said. “We're the Navy, we operate and live at sea level,” the superintendent said, before noting the 338-acre property for the academy was reclaimed from a local creek.

The academy has thus “designated buildings and fields [that will be] allowed to be flooded once in 100 years,” he said, where changes “to keep them dry would not be cost-effective.”

Mayor, Scientist Testify

Annapolis Mayor Mike Pantelides (R) told the panel the city has witnessed a 10-fold increase in nuisance flooding over the past 50 years, from an average four floods a year to about 40 a year in recent years.

Brenda Ekwurzel, senior climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the state capital and other communities in the Chesapeake Bay watershed would face even more drastic flooding without significant action to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Ekwurzel said Annapolis could face as much as 17 inches of sea level rise—triggering an estimated 380 flooding events annually—by 2045 under a business-as-usual scenario in which emissions rise unabated.

Increased flooding is a result of warmer ocean temperatures, which fuel more severe North Atlantic storms, Ekwurzel said. Those storms exacerbate tides that are already higher due to a rising sea level, which “significantly increase[s] the breadth and severity of flooding, causing even more damage,” she said.

Ocean City, Md., now sees about seven tidal flooding events per year, she said, but could face as much as 18 inches of sea level rise by 2045 in that same scenario, resulting in 411 tidal flooding events a year.

Acceleration of Flooding 

Van Hollen, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, decried what he said was continued obstruction by the Republican-controlled Congress to tackle climate change.

“Republican leaders on Capitol Hill may be refusing to take action on climate change, but Maryland's communities understand that we need to work together to prevent its damaging impacts,” he said.

In February, Van Hollen introduced the Climate and Family Security Act (H.R. 1027), which would put mandatory caps on U.S. carbon dioxide emissions, requiring an 80 percent reduction by 2050 from 2005 levels.

To contact the reporter on this story: Dean Scott in Washington at dscott@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com