WALLOPS ISLAND—NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia’s Eastern Shore is scheduled to launch a resupply mission to the International Space Station this afternoon.
The launch pad is one of two that sit at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean and a spot where rising waters and stronger storms believed to be fueled by climate change are eroding the shoreline.
The first lesson in understanding what’s happening at Wallops is that not all beaches erode equally. And that’s the crux of the problem for NASA’s $1.2 billion flight facility. Built out on a barrier island to reduce risk to the local population in Accomack County, the beach helps to protect the island from scouring waves.
But the thing about barrier islands is they are always moving and changing, and the area where launches take place sits at an erosion hot spot.
Christopher Hein is a coastal geologist at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science who has been working with NASA to better understand how climate change might affect Wallops Island and the northern islands of Chincoteague and Assateague.
“So if you’re sitting on the beach, you look to your right, all the sand is moving to your right. You look to the left and all the sand is moving to the left,” he explained. “Which means there’s no sand coming to where you are and, it’s all leaving where you are. Hence, an erosion hot spot.”
NASA has been holding its ground ever since the original facility was built by its predecessor, the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, in 1945. Back then, Wallops Island was used as a launch site for experimental rocket research.
At the time, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Beach Erosion Board was the first to study erosion at Wallops. It found the shoreline had receded 500 feet since 1851. In 1946, the first sea wall was built.
When the high water line came within 50 feet of the sea wall, groins were installed. As the years went by, more shoreline hardening was done.
Fast-forward to the mid-2000s, when the EPA determined the facility was losing ground to erosion and sea-level rise at a much faster rate of about 12 feet a year.
There are only a handful of facilities licensed in the U.S. to send payloads or satellites into orbit. All are safely located away from the public. Wallops is one.
Packing up a billion-dollar facility and leaving has not been an option. And there are plans to expand. The logical fix was to continue armoring the shoreline and replenishing the lost beach.
So in 2012, NASA, which shares the island with the U.S. Navy and the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, spent $43 million to replenish nearly 4 miles of beach and extended the massive 3-mile-long, 14-foot-high sea wall near one of the launch pads used for International Space Station supply missions.
Then Hurricane Sandy hit.
“It tore the beach up that we put in, but not a single thing happened on this island,” said Paul Bull, the deputy division chief who manages facilities for Goddard Space Flight Center, which includes NASA Wallops.
Without the beach, waves once again crash onto and sometimes over the sea wall just next to the launch pads. The beach had been moved, part of it just north, and not just by Sandy, but also pounding nor’easters.
“Hurricanes do damage to us, but our biggest problem are nor’easters,” Bull said. “They don’t get as much publicity, people don’t think about them, but they just sit here and churn for days on end and just tear the shoreline up.”
Like a detective, Hein combs through old geologic records, collects sediment cores and uses ground penetrating radar to understand the history of the islands. Just above Wallops Island are Chincoteague and Assateague islands.
“One of the most dynamic places to watch in the world, if you want to see coastal change, is southern Assateague Island,” he said.
Assateague’s southern tip is often called the wagging dog’s tail because of its similar movement as it shifts. Hein said the tip has doubled in size in the last 50 years.
“As it does so, it affects everything around that inlet and Wallops Island to the south,” he said.
And while it’s responsible for Wallop’s erosion problem now, Hein said that may change.
As Assateague grows to the south, that hot spot on Wallops shifts to the south.
“Eventually, and we don’t know if it’s going to be 10 years, 50 years, 100 years, but it will eventually move all the way down to, most likely, Assawoman Island, one island to the south,” he said. “And then most of Wallops will be in the shadow of Assateague Island, much the same way that Chincoteague is today.”
On the coast of Wallops Island, NASA, in partnership with the Army Corps of Engineers, is getting ready to install six breakwaters and mine sand from the growing northern beach. New dunes will be planted with grasses.
They are required to wait until after nesting season for birds and sea turtles and follow strict environmental protocols to move the sand back. In all, the equivalent of about 60,000 dump-truck loads of sand will replenish nearly 4 miles of lost beach. The total cost comes in at $25 million.
“There’s a lot of science behind what we do,” said Bull. “We’re not just getting sand and throwing it on the beach. Without Sandy, maybe it would still look a little better, but it still would have been diminished. It’s just over time, nature takes its course.”
As sea levels rise and storms become more frequent and stronger, Bull said he expects the Corps will return in five to seven years to once again put back the sand.
In the meantime, Virginia’s General Assembly has funded a three-year project by VIM’s Hein to study the area and to provide NASA with a critical planning and management tool for the Wallops Flight Facility and spaceport.