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Research

Pacific Missile Tracking Site Could Be Unusable in 20 Years Due to Climate Change



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Living and working on the Pacific islands hosting a key missile tracking site could be almost impossible due to the impacts of climate change. In a report requested by the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), the USGS and partners forecast that the “tipping point”—the time at which potable groundwater on Roi-Namur Island will be unavailable due to wave-driven flooding—could be reached around the year 2035 in the most extreme scenario.

Photo of waves washing over a road on Roi-Namur Island
Above: Waves wash over a road on Roi-Namur Island. Photo credit: Peter Swarzenski, USGS. [larger version]

“Buildings, roads, and airports will be swamped by storm waves annually,” said lead author Curt Storlazzi, a USGS research geologist. “Yearly flooding by seawater, combined with slightly reduced rainfall, will result in the islands on Kwajalein Atoll not having a reliable natural source of fresh water. In the worst-case scenario, without significant infrastructure investments, many low-lying Pacific coral islands could reach a tipping point, becoming uninhabitable and unusable, before mid-century.”

Series of graphic maps showing projected seawater depths over Roi-Namur island for different climate scenarios over time
Above: Maps showing projected seawater depths over Roi-Namur island for different climate scenarios over time. Image from DOD SERDP report RC-2334. [larger version]

The 138-page peer-reviewed report was the result of more than four years of research by scientists from the USGS, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Deltares research institute in the Netherlands, and the University of Hawaiʻi. DOD asked for the analysis to better understand the impacts of climate change on critical facilities in the tropical Pacific, and to plan for adapting to these changes.

Photo of scientist drilling into a reef flat to set an instrument mount on Roi-Namur island
Above: Curt Storlazzi drills an instrument mount into a reef flat on Roi-Namur island. [larger version]

The study took place on Roi-Namur Island in the western Pacific Ocean, part of Kwajalein Atoll in the Republic of the Marshall Islands. The atoll is home to the Reagan Test Site, a multi-billion-dollar facility used to track satellites, ballistic missiles, and missile defense systems.

Defense Department facilities are visible in this satellite photo of Roi-Namur Island
Above: Defense Department facilities are visible in this satellite photo of Roi-Namur Island. Photo credit: DigitalGlobe. [larger version]

The researchers focused on forecasting “tipping points”—when the combination of sea-level rise, storm wave-driven overwash, and reduced rainfall becomes so frequent that existing buildings, fresh water sources, and other infrastructure become unsustainable. Since 1990, sea level in the western Pacific Ocean has risen two to three times faster than the global average. Adding storm waves means flooding on atoll islands could be worse and happen sooner. And climate change forecasts call for slightly reduced rainfall on the islands, making the fresh water problem even more challenging.

Photo shows coral reefs surrounding Kwajalein Atoll, a ring of islands enclosing a shallow lagoon
Above: Coral reefs surround Kwajalein Atoll, a ring of islands enclosing a shallow lagoon. Photo credit: Tom Reiss, USGS. [larger version]

The tipping point when natural fresh groundwater on Roi-Namur and adjacent islands will be unavailable could arrive before 2035 under the worst-case climate scenario. On top of that, most of Roi-Namur’s land could flood with seawater every year starting around 2060—another tipping point. The tipping point for drinkable groundwater on most low-lying atoll islands world-wide could occur as early as the 2030s.

The Defense Department chose three widely-accepted climate change and sea-level rise scenarios for the study. The first, based on reduced greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century, is known as RCP4.5. RCP8.5 assumes “business as usual” growth in carbon emissions. The third adds polar ice sheet collapse to RCP8.5 to create a worst-case scenario.

Congress cited early results from this study in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018: “In the Marshall Islands, an Air Force radar installation built on an atoll at a cost of $1,000,000,000 is projected to be underwater within two decades.” Previous research showed that similar problems face other low-lying Pacific islands, including Laysan Island and Midway Atoll (see “Many Atolls May be Uninhabitable Within Decades Due to Climate Change”).

Photo of a large wave crashing on the reef at Laysan Island
Above: A large wave crashes on the reef at Laysan Island. Photo credit: Michele Reynolds, USGS. [larger version]

“We’re working with the Defense Department on detailed follow-up studies to characterize the problems for defense sites on other islands,” said Storlazzi, “and potentially develop a real-time coastal flood impact warning system.”

Related Sound Waves Stories
Climate Change Reduces Coral Reefs' Ability to Protect Coasts
July–Sept. 2015
Assessing the Vulnerability of Pacific Atolls to Climate Change
March / April 2014

Related Websites
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
NOAA
Deltares research institute
Deltares
University of Hawaiʻi
University of Hawaiʻi
Reagan Test Site
U.S. Army
National Defense Authorization Act
U.S. Congress
Many Atolls May be Uninhabitable Within Decades Due to Climate Change
USGS News

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in this issue:

Cover Story Giant Grooves Discovered on an Earthquake Fault Offshore Costa Rica

News Brief
News Briefs

Research
Pacific Missile Tracking Site Could Be Unusable Soon Due to Climate Change

A Tale of Two Tsunamis—Mexico 2017 and Alaska 2018

The USGS Coastal and Marine Geology Data Catalog

Field Work
Recent Fieldwork

Staff amd Center News
Scientists, Volunteers Rescue Cold-Stunned Sea Turtles

Publications
New Study Links Salinity Changes to Changes in Rainfall Patterns

Feb. Publications

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