Parris Island Under Water? One Study Says It Could Happen

Drill instructors present their new Marines with Eagle, Globe and Anchors during the emblem ceremony Sept. 7, 2013, at the Iwo Jima flag raising statue on Parris Island, S.C. (Photo by Lance Cpl. MaryAnn Hill)
Drill instructors present their new Marines with Eagle, Globe and Anchors during the emblem ceremony Sept. 7, 2013, at the Iwo Jima flag raising statue on Parris Island, S.C. (Photo by Lance Cpl. MaryAnn Hill)

Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island sits on about 8,000 acres of land. A fifth of that, according to one study, could be under water by 2050.

A recent study by the Union of Concerned Scientists highlighted 18 military installations threatened, to varying degrees, by sea-level rise. Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort and the depot -- which is significantly threatened, according to one study author -- were included in the survey.

"Half of these bases stand to lose more than a quarter of their land by the end of the century," said Shana Uvardy, a certified flood plain manager and one of the authors of "The U.S. Military on the Front Lines of Rising Seas."

"Four of these bases will lose a fifth of their land by 2050," she continued.

Parris Island is among them.

The air station is less threatened, Uvardy said, because it is farther inland.

Regardless, people should care about the threat sea-level rise poses to bases, she said. Tax dollars are at stake, and military installations are economic drivers in their communities.

Raising the stakes

Parris Island's economic impact on the community is more than $570 million dollars annually, according to depot spokesman Staff Sgt. Greg Thomas.

The depot employs more than 3,000 people, including 1,300 civilians.

Thomas, who first came to the island in 1998, said he personally hasn't noticed any change in sea levels or flooding at the base.

"As far as affecting our ability to train recruits, (sea-level rise) doesn't (affect us) at all," he said.

Depot officials are talking about sea-level rise, he said, but he's not aware of any action that's been taken to address the matter. There are portions of the beach that are reinforced by large concrete chunks, but those have been there since Thomas' first tour on the island.

Other installations, such as Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, have taken steps to address the matter, according to Uvardy.

At Langley, steps included elevating heating and air-conditioning units and transformers, and installing flood barriers at the entrances of buildings. And, Uvardy said, the base partnered with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to develop a tool to predict inundation due to flooding.

On a driving tour of Parris Island, Thomas said that some of the depot's HVAC units had been raised or were installed on the tops of buildings. And he pointed out units that were still on the ground, such as those adjoined to houses on the base and the unit that sits behind his office building.

There is flooding on the island sometimes, he said, but only after extreme tides and heavy rain.

"Climate change effects are being integrated into planning, assessment, response and related decision-making support activities across Parris Island," the Corps said in a statement.

Roughly 3,200 acres on the island are "habitable" -- meaning not marsh -- according to Thomas. The highest point on the island is about 20 feet above sea level; the average is about 9.

"With Parris Island, it's going to see the flooding sooner, and much more extensively," Uvardy said. "By the end of the century, extreme tides could inundate 85 percent of the installation roughly 10 times per year."

Not gonna creep up on us

"Looking at maps, you can see the air station is a lot less vulnerable than Parris Island," said Elizabeth Fly, a coastal climate specialist with the South Carolina Sea Grant Consortium.

The air station is one of 13 installations that Uvardy's study determined could lose a fifth of its land by the end of the century. But the Marine aviators are confident their runways will remain dry.

"Our runways are fine," air station spokesman Capt. Clayton Groover said. "Nothing's going to creep up on our runways."

Groover said that, prior to his arrival in June 2015, the base had been asked to do a "data call" -- a study that examined tide levels at three, six, nine and 12 feet. Even at the highest levels, only "minor infrastructure" was affected.

When asked to define "minor infrastructure," Groover declined. But he said that the effects of sea-level rise, even at the most extreme levels, would be insignificant and would not impact base operations.

The air station sits on one of the highest points of Beaufort County, according to Ginnie Kozak, planning director with the Lowcountry Council of Governments.

The council spearheads a federally funded joint land-use study -- how civilian infrastructure development affects local military operations. Part of that study now includes the Sea Level Rise Preliminary Infrastructure Assessment.

"Using existing data about sea-level rise, we're looking at how infrastructure -- highways, bridges, roads, sewer and water, electrical -- that serves the county might be impacted by sea-level rise, and how it would affect the military facilities," she said.

The assessment, which began near the end of 2015, is ongoing.

"This area is known for its excellent relationships between the military and community," she said.

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