Sea level rise forces US space agency to retreat

An unmanned Falcon 9 rocket blasts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in this handout photo provided by NASA in Cape Canaveral, Florida April 18, 2014. Sea level rise is threatening the majority of Nasa's launch pads and multi-billion dol
An unmanned Falcon 9 rocket blasts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in this handout photo provided by NASA in Cape Canaveral, Florida April 18, 2014. Sea level rise is threatening the majority of Nasa's launch pads and multi-billion dollar complexes famous for training astronauts and launching historic missions to space, scientists said Tuesday. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (AFP) - Sea level rise is threatening the majority of Nasa's launch pads and multi-billion dollar complexes famous for training astronauts and launching historic missions to space, scientists said Tuesday.

From Cape Canaveral in Florida to mission control in Houston, the US space agency is busily building seawalls where possible and moving some buildings further inland.

Five of seven major Nasa centres are located along the coast. Experts say that proximity to water is a logistical necessity for launching rockets and testing spacecraft.

Many Nasa centres have already faced costly damage from encroaching water, coastal erosion and potent hurricanes, said a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Perhaps the most iconic launchpad lies in Florida at the Kennedy Space Centre, the liftoff point for the Apollo missions to the Moon and many space shuttle flights over the past three decades.

"According to Nasa's planning and development office, rising sea levels are the single largest threat to the Kennedy Space Centre's continued operations," said the report, which also listed other historic sites across the US that are threatened by sea level rise.

They include the Statue of Liberty in New York, the first permanent British colony in North America at Jamestown Island in Virginia, and historic Charleston, South Carolina.

One key Nasa site that is succumbing to rising seas is Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, where 16,000 rockets have launched and where sea levels have surged 23cm since it opened in 1945.

Others are Ames Research Centre in San Francisco and Langley Research Centre in Virginia, which is a US$3.5 billion (S$4.4 billion) facility with specialised wind tunnels for simulating flight.

"Retreat is the way to go here, because you just can't like, get up and move. The infrastructure is too great here," Russell De Young of the Nasa science directorate at Langley told AFP.

"They are tearing down buildings that are at the water's edge and building new structures as far back as we can against the fence of the property line," he said.

The new complex is aptly named "New Town."

De Young is among a handful of Nasa employees who are tasked with monitoring climate change and analysing the impacts it would have on Nasa facilities.

President Barack Obama in 2009 called on all government agencies to take steps to prepare for climate change.

De Young said the space agency, like other government facilities that find themselves on the coast, are trying to make incremental changes over the coming decades.

"This is not imminent," he said, noting that the forecast at Langley, which is in Hampton, Virginia, is for 30cm of sea level rise from the 1980s until the year 2100.

"With sea level rise you can always manage it, but if a hurricane hits us, that is what worries us. The combination of the two is a devastating blow that we dread."