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NASA Battles Rising Sea Levels To Protect Kennedy Space Center

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NASA Battles Rising Sea Levels To Protect Kennedy Space Center

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NASA Battles Rising Sea Levels To Protect Kennedy Space Center

NASA Battles Rising Sea Levels To Protect Kennedy Space Center

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Sea level rise is beginning to affect the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. A protective dune not too far from the launchpads has collapsed and waves have washed over railroad tracks built in the 1960s. Now NASA is taking steps to protect its launch infrastructure.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Florida Governor Rick Scott's reported ban on state agencies use of the terms climate change and global warming has drawn a lot of attention. At the Kennedy Space Center on Florida's Atlantic coast, new research shows climate change is evident. And now NASA is taking steps to protect the only place in the nation where it can launch astronauts into space. Amy Green of member station WMFE reports.

AMY GREEN, BYLINE: Anyone who's watched a shuttle launch knows this sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And all three engines up and burning - two, one, zero and liftoff. The final liftoff of Atlantis.

GREEN: As the shuttle charges towards space, leaving a trail bellowing over the Atlantic Ocean - and that's the problem. The ocean is moving in.

NANCY BRAY: This is about 50 feet inland of where the prior dune was.

GREEN: Should we walk?

BRAY: We can walk out there, yep.

GREEN: Nancy Bray is director of center operations at Kennedy Space Center. She climbs a newly built 50-foot dune. Closer to the beach, another natural dune has collapsed into the sand.

BRAY: It didn't used to be that close. The ocean was further out. And that primary dune that we had protected us for years. But as the ocean crept closer, washed away that primary dune, now we're relying on this man-made dune that we've constructed.

GREEN: An old launch pad sits less than a half-mile away.

BRAY: You can see it's pretty flat between the ocean and the launch pads. It might even be a little downhill in some places. So we certainly don't want that saltwater intrusion into the critical launch infrastructure.

GREEN: The collapsed dune used to serve as a barrier between the Atlantic Ocean and historic pads that rocketed astronauts to the moon and International Space Station. Now it's a dilapidated measuring stick of the rising sea. Waves have also washed over a railroad track built by NASA in the 1960s. Peter Adams is an assistant geology professor at the University of Florida.

PETER ADAMS: Certainly things are going to be fairly obviously threatened within the next 50 years or the next century. I think you could argue that they're already threatened. It's already costing money and resources.

GREEN: Adams is part of a team that in 2009 began to study beach erosion at Kennedy. The problem had been going on for years, but seemed to be getting worse, and NASA wanted to know why. The researchers discovered not only is the sea rising, but wave patterns are changing. Submerged sandbars off Kennedy's coast are concentrating wave energy there. Adams says a string of hurricanes, especially Sandy in 2012, exacerbated the problem.

ADAMS: And so if you think of this steadily increasing sea level rise, each subsequent storm is going to be a little bit more damaging and create - carry with it a little bit more coastal vulnerability.

GREEN: Last year, NASA constructed the new mile-long dune inland from the collapsed one. Eventually the space agency wants to extend this buffer farther along the beach. The dune will have to hold as Kennedy transforms into a multiuser space port after the shuttle program ended in 2011. The old pads are being retooled for private companies like Boeing and SpaceX, which will rocket astronauts to the International Space Station while NASA concentrates on launching people to Mars. Back at the beach, Don Dankert, a biological scientist at Kennedy, believes the dune is enough.

DON DANKERT: The dune that we constructed, you know, we feel will withstand our average storm, if you will. That's not to say that we may not have to come back and repair that at some time if we have a very active storm season.

GREEN: If the sea level rise worsens, NASA has identified places farther inland at Kennedy where a new launch pad could be built, but there are no immediate plans to do that. For NPR News, I am Amy Green in Orlando.

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