Climate change is a hot topic, and many are concerned about how it is affecting the world we live in. But how is it influencing the way we look at the world outside our atmosphere? Rising ocean temperatures can lead to stronger hurricanes, and the United States’ most valuable space asset is being threatened. Mother nature won’t be denied, so how can the American space industry prepare for the inevitable?
As Floridians on the east coast of the U.S. flooded grocery stores for water and food in preparation for the oncoming storm, Hurricane Dorian grew swiftly from a manageable Category 1 hurricane into a Category 5 heading straight for eastern Florida. Cape Canaveral Air Force Base and Kennedy Space Center (KSC) began their emergency preparations. As the U.S. held its breath awaiting the landfall of Hurricane Dorian, we watched in horror as it fell over the Bahamas and came to a standstill. The islands took a continual beating with rain, debris, and sustained winds of 185 mph tearing the islands’ structure apart. Florida, in the end, received little more than rain.
The United States let out a breath of relief, but one question weighed on the minds of officials in the aerospace industry: “What if?”
The U.S. space industry is not immune to the risks of natural disasters or climate change. These risks are growing, and the space economy will suffer greatly should a storm hit. It is crucial to understand these risks and how to prepare for the inevitable.
The Looming Predicament
“Nobody in their right mind thought that Hurricane Dorian would sit there and pummel the Bahamas for two days with 200 mph winds. It’s just unheard of,” says former assistant administrator for research and development at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Dr. Norine Noonan. “The previous thinking was that these very large hurricanes simply could not maintain the intensity of 180 or 200 mph winds over long periods of time because they would simply implode.”
What we thought we knew about hurricanes is being challenged. They’re becoming stronger, they’re lasting longer, and their lifetime maximum intensity is shifting northward. While it’s a common misconception that hurricanes in general are becoming more frequent, there isn’t any evidence to support that claim. But what is happening, according to Dr. Carl Schreck — an affiliate at NOAA who has been studying hurricane data for over 10 years — is that hurricanes aren’t becoming more frequent: hurricanes are getting stronger.Mother Nature Will Not be Denied
What’s causing these increasing intensities? The short, two-worded answer is climate change. For a hurricane to form, ocean water needs to be at least 27 degrees Celsius for 50 meters below the ocean surface. Hurricanes get their energy from warm water, but the intensity of a storm depends on the difference between that ocean temperature and the temperature at the troposphere 7 miles above the surface of the earth. “It does seem like the warming at the surface, especially the Atlantic, is happening faster than what’s happening further up,” Schreck comments.
Let’s step back in time to see how hurricanes have affected defense and space in the past: Labor Day Weekend, 2004. Hurricane Frances barreled into the east coast of Florida as a Category 2 storm and shredded apart the coast for two days. The storm caused $9 billion dollars in damages. At KSC, two buildings on site had their roofs lifted by the winds. The Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) had its siding ripped open, causing damage not only to the VAB, but also the rockets, satellites, and aircraft that were stored inside for protection.
Just three weeks later, Hurricane Jeanne, the deadliest storm of 2004, came through Florida’s east coast with wind speeds of 120 mph. The VAB again was damaged, compounding the damage done by Frances just weeks earlier. The total cost of damages done to KSC in 2004 was $123 million.
According to KSC Emergency Manager Wayne Kee, “The storm peeled the siding of the VAB off like it was an onion; it was a very hazardous situation.” After these two storms, the facilities at both Cape Canaveral AFB and KSC were shut down for three weeks for damage repairs.Mother Nature Will Not be Denied
On October 10, 2018, Hurricane Michael hits the contiguous U.S. as the first Category 5 hurricane to make landfall since 1992, and the damages were heartbreaking. Although Michael only held Category 5 status for just under an hour, it caused a total of $25 billion in damages, $5 billion of which was attributed to the destruction at Tyndall AFB.
Tyndall AFB was nearly obliterated by Hurricane Michael. Air Force officials described the damage to the base as “catastrophic,” with all the base’s facilities being declared “unlivable.” Billions of dollars’ worth of stealth jets and aircraft were destroyed, and 11,000 individuals became homeless within the base alone. Tyndall was a massive employer, with 3,600 employed personnel on site shortly before Michael made landfall, and the Air Force is to this day thinking very seriously about how much of the base to rebuild.