Naval Station Norfolk was under assault — the sea had risen by 6 feet, storm surge was pounding the piers and a Category 3 hurricane was barreling down with blistering 129 mph winds.
And before it was over, the sea would rise by 27 feet — roughly the height of a three-story building. Swaths of coastline would be underwater, installations swamped, aquifers filled with salt water, roads gone, power down. And that didn't include the human toll.
"It's pretty catastrophic," said Kelly Burks-Copes, a scientist in the Environmental Laboratory of the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center in Vicksburg, Miss.
It was Burks-Copes who led the 22-person team that dreamed up this worst-case scenario for the naval base, as well as two dozen lesser storm events, using computers and other simulators to gauge how vulnerable the installation is to coastal storms and sea level rise.
"We assessed that base with respect to threats of coastal storms or flooding as a result of hurricanes coming through and sea level rise in (various) combinations," Burks-Copes explained. "We were told to not model climate change — we were told to accept it and ask the next question, which is, "What happens when …?'"
Their models ran from the least impactful, such as zero rise in sea level up to a rise of 2 meters, or about 6 feet. Then they introduced a wide variety of storms, from a relatively mild one-year rain event to a more severe 100-year rain event, a nor'easter to a Category 3 hurricane.
They altered the coastline, wave height and velocity, wind force, ocean surface temperature, storm direction and duration.
In many scenarios, the base weathered the onslaught well. In others, generators stalled, steam pipes burst, electrical systems went down, roads were flooded, piers damaged and the base locked down.
The modeling team also located the base's tipping point for sea level rise.
"They can endure very well at a half-meter," said Burks-Copes. "By the time it tips over to 1 meter, then there's catastrophic failures of many of their (systems)."
This is invaluable information, she said, giving military and elected leaders a guidepost for future development or mitigation measures.
"The Navy can't retreat," Burks-Copes explained. "The Navy's mission is to have ports and put boats on the water. … The question is, do they abandon particular sites because they're going to go under and they're not sustainable in this kind of scenario, or do they do something that makes them sustainable?"
The modeling initiative is called RC-1701, shorthand for Risk Quantification for Sustaining Coastal Military Installation Assets and Mission Capabilities.
Theirs was one of four proposals accepted four years ago by the Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program, or SERDP, of the U.S. Department of Defense and the only one to focus on Hampton Roads. The region is considered a global hot spot for its accelerating rate of sea level rise.
Naval station spokeswoman Terri Davis said only that the facility is "well aware of the issue."
"We are in a better position than some in regards to the issue due to the fact the base is designed to withstand storm surge," Davis said. "This affords us the opportunity to be methodical and deliberate in our approach in regards to long-term sea level rise."
'Now is the time'
The planet's climate has undergone change for billions of years, but for the past 8,000 or so it's been relatively stable, to the benefit of human civilization.
Now the best available scientific evidence indicates the climate is changing again, and at an unprecedented rate — fueled by human behaviors such as the burning of half a trillion tons of carbon over the last 150 years.
According to retired Rear Adm. David Titley, an expert on climate change as it affects national security, Hampton Roads is one of three areas in the country — along with south Florida and New Orleans — that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers considers most critical in terms of sea level rise.
Not only is this region dealing with a warming ocean, a slowing Gulf Stream and the effects of melting ice sheets in Greenland and the Antarctic, he said, but "the kicker in the teeth is the land in the Hampton Roads area is slowly subsiding."
The net effect is a threat to the area's vast military infrastructure, especially those of the Navy.
"A huge number of Navy installations are going to become affected over the coming decades," Titley said. "This is not something that will force us to move tomorrow, next year or the year after. But over the coming decades it will become a serious problem."
Titley spent 32 years in the Navy, from his first tour at Naval Station Norfolk from 1980-83 aboard a guided missile destroyer to eventually heading its Task Force on Climate Change.
This summer he left Virginia to lead the Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk at Penn State University. He plans to be back in Norfolk to deliver a public lecture on climate risk at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday in the Ted Constant Center at Old Dominion University.
His appearance is part of a two-day international forum entitled "Transatlantic Solutions to Sea Level Rise Adaptation: Moving Beyond the Threat." Burks-Copes is also scheduled as a forum panelist.
Titley credits the Defense Department for tackling the issue, but said any meaningful mitigation must also include the larger community in a "wide-ranging, open, inclusive and transparent discussion."
"Now is the time," said Titley, "to do that basic work to understand the details, to start bringing in the engineers, the scientists, the community leaders and stakeholders so we can really start figuring out what needs to be done."
He concedes it would be costly, but wouldn't offer an estimate. By comparison, he said, a recent study showed the Netherlands would spend about $170 billion in additional mitigation measures for their coastlines, which are roughly equivalent to the coasts of Massachusetts and Connecticut.
And while there's concern at the Pentagon, he said, the extraordinary fiscal pressures of the last 18 months — sequestration, furloughs, a federal shutdown — tend to crowd out challenges and threats that are still decades out.
"They are interested first in getting a better understanding of exactly what are the issues, almost base by base, and Norfolk is one of the most important places for that," Titley said. "You can do a lot of preparation work before you have to spend a lot of money. I think a lot of people understand at some point this is going to become a very significant budget issue. But it's not right now. And if you're in the Pentagon, you're just trying to get to the end of the week."
Still, Titley said, four well-respected admirals have begun to champion addressing the impact of climate change on the Navy.
"You didn't see that even a few years ago," Titley said.
Climate expert Bruce Wielicki credits the U.S. military for being among the first to take climate change seriously. Wielicki is a scientist at NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton.
And now, a year after Superstorm Sandy struck the East Coast, Wielicki said that mammoth storm event is a good indicator of what to expect in future.
"You start getting to the point where your infrastructure is not designed for what's coming," Wielicki said. "Do we take a lot of places like Miami and Hampton Roads and just turn them into Hollands? I don't know. … There are some places that are starting to put this into their planning and realizing if you want to build something and it's meant to be there for a hundred years, you need to start thinking differently about it."
Burks-Copes said the array of storm simulations her team developed can help Naval Station Norfolk and other military installations begin to do just that.
"Norfolk is one of the most sensitive systems I've encountered so far," she said. "They're open to what we've done and smart about what they're doing. They realize it's an uncertain adventure they're on here. Sea level rise can sometimes put people into paralysis. I fully believe the people we're talking with are fully aware of that, and willing to do something.
"This thing is happening right at their doorstep, so they're willing to start thinking about it. Because they could lose everything if they don't do something."
Sea level rise forum
Old Dominion University is hosting an international forum on climate change and sea level rise on Wednesday and Thursday called "Transatlantic Solutions to Sea Level Rise Adaptation: Moving Beyond the Threat."
The forum will feature international panelists from the military and academia, but the only public portion is a lecture to be held 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at ODU's Ted Constant Convocation Center.
There, retired Rear Adm. David W. Titley will address "The Evolving Understanding of Climate Risk: The Challenge That Won't Go Away." Titley once led the U.S. Navy's Task Force on Climate Change.