Science and Persistence Battle Rising Sea Levels at NASA Facility | WYPR

Science and Persistence Battle Rising Sea Levels at NASA Facility

Apr 16, 2019

The launch site at NASA's Wallops facility
Credit Pamela D'Angelo

NASA's Wallops Flight Facility, on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, is scheduled to launch a resupply mission to the International Space Station Wednesday afternoon from a launch pad that sits at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean.

It’s a climate change—and erosion--hot spot where rising waters and increasingly stronger storms are eroding the shoreline by about 12 feet a year.

And that’s the crux of the problem for the $1.2 billion facility built on a barrier island just a few miles south of the Maryland line. Barrier islands are always moving and changing.

“So, if you're sitting on the beach, you look to your right, all the sand is moving to your right,” says Christopher Hein, a coastal geologist at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science who has been working with NASA to better understand how climate change might affect Wallops Island and neighboring Chincoteague and Assateague.

“You look to the left and all the sand is moving to the left,” he continues, “which means there's no sand coming to where you are and, it's all leaving where you are, in fact. Hence, an erosion hot spot.”

Hein combs through old geologic records, collects sediment cores and uses ground penetrating radar to understand the history of Assateague, Chincoteague and Wallops islands.

“One of the most dynamic places to watch in the world, if you want to see coastal change, southern Assateague Island,” he says. “You can actually watch--it has doubled in size in the last 50 years--that southern tip of the island. As it does so, it affects everything around that inlet and Wallops Island to the south.”

Assateague's southern tip is often called the wagging dog's tail because of its similar movement. And while it's responsible for Wallop's erosion problem now, Hein says that may change.

“As Assateague grows to the south, that hot spot on Wallops shifts to the south,” he explains. “And eventually--and we don't know if it's going to be ten years, fifty years, a hundred years--but it will eventually move all the way down to most likely, Assawoman Island, one island to the south. And then most of Wallops will be in the shadow of Assateague Island much the same way that Chincoteague is today.”

NASA shares the island with the U.S. Navy and the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport. The Atlantic crashes on a massive 3-mile long, 14-foot high sea wall near one of the launch pads used for space station supply missions. The beach that used to be here has been moved, part of it just north, mostly by nor'easters. In 2012, just two months after another replenishment project armored the shoreline with the sea wall and sand, Hurricane Sandy pounded the Eastern Shore.

“It tore the beach up that we put in, but not a single thing happened on this island,” says Paul Bull, the deputy division chief managing Goddard Space Flight Center. “Hurricanes do damage to us, but our biggest problem are nor'easters. They don't get as much publicity; people don't think about them, but they just sit here and churn for days on end and just tear the shoreline up.”

The Army Corps of Engineers plans to restore about four miles of that lost beach by installing breakwaters and hauling the equivalent of about 30,000 tandem dump truck loads of sand mined from the growing northern beach. But not until after nesting season for birds and sea turtles.

“There's a lot of science behind what we do,” says Bull. “We're not just getting sand and throwing it on the beach. Without Sandy maybe it would still look a little better, but it still would have been diminished. It's just over time nature takes its course.

As sea levels rise and storms become more frequent and stronger, Bull expects the Corps will return in five to seven years to once again put back the sand. Meantime, Hein will spend the next three years studying the area to provide a critical planning and management tool for the flight facility and spaceport.