Mention Earth’s changing climate and retired RADM Garry J. Bonelli thinks back to the time when a hurricane swept through San
Diego. It was 1976, and Bonelli was an enlisted Navy
SEAL. Hurricane Kathleen teetered between hurricane
and tropical storm as it moved north through Baja
California and inundated Southern California with
about a foot of rain. The deadly storm flooded roads
and washed out a railway and half a desert town.
Damage along the coast, though, was just as bad.
Waves and storm surges plowed through parts of the bar-
rier peninsula at Coronado, home to the Naval Special
Warfare Command off the Silver Strand and North Island
Naval Air Station. For some time, “there was no San
Diego Bay,” Bonelli said, noting seas breached the barrier
at Emory Cove along the Silver Strand that is well-used
for SEAL and amphibious training. “Essentially, the
Pacific Ocean and San Diego Bay were one.”
As hurricanes go, that one was
relatively mild. But scientists and
climate experts warn in numerous
reports and assessments that storms
may be more damaging in the near
future because of the increasing
pace of climatic changes.
Higher seas, and particularly the
double-whammy of higher seas during severe weather events like tropical storms and Nor’easters, endanger
coastal communities, which include
dozens of low-lying naval and military installations, critical infrastructure and seaports. Several recent
interagency assessments provide a
glimpse of the potential dangers and
damage from rising sea levels.
A January 2013 assessment
report on coastal military installations found more than 30 face “
elevated risk” and about 10 percent of
defense installations experience problems.
New data and historical records predict sea levels will
rise globally through the 21st century by as much as 3 to
5 feet, at the high end. Places like Naval Station Norfolk,
Va., already experience flooding during super high tides
and moderate storms, and scientists predict it will only
worsen. A “100-year storm” could inundate more than
half of Naval Station Norfolk, the 2013 report found.
The West Coast is not immune, as a March assessment estimated the highest sea level rise would cause
$1.6 billion in damage at Marine Corps Base Camp
Pendleton, Calif., and $760 million at Coronado, and
cut into valuable coastal training and recreation areas.
Navy and other senior military leaders, as well as
the commander-in-chief, say climate change threatens
the nation’s security.
“Climate change, and especially rising seas, is a
threat to our homeland security, our economic infra-
Rising Sea Levels
As concerns grow, officials study what it might mean
for the sea services, coastal and port infrastructure
By GIDGET FUENTES, Special Correspondent
The problem of rising sea levels have senior Navy and other military leaders assessing the vulnerability of military installations and
other infrastructure along the East and West coasts.
■ The Navy is involved with various efforts to determine possible
impacts of rising sea levels on installations and is working with
federal scientists and other experts to determine ways to mitigate or prevent damaging effects.
■ Efforts in San Diego, Hampton Roads, Va., and elsewhere see
experts in the military, local, state and federal government, and
science and academic communities collaborating in a “whole of
■ The military and federal government’s efforts come amid political debates questioning whether climate change is real, whether
humans are to blame and some previously conflicting conclusions
from some scientists.