Navy Secretary Ray Mabus told an audience Monday that Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia, the largest naval base in the world and a key East Coast center of operations for the service, could be endangered in coming decades by rising seas due to climate change if steps are not taken to reverse current trends.
Mabus, who has frequently spoken about his concerns regarding climate change and associated threats to national security during his seven-year tenure as secretary of the Navy, said other bases also might be at risk from projected rising seas.
"We're the Navy; we tend to have bases on the sea. It makes sense," Mabus said. "All our bases are, in some way or another, at risk."
Norfolk in particular has received significant attention in recent years. The base is home to more than 80,000 active-duty personnel and supports some 75 ships and 134 aircraft. At an elevation of just seven feet above sea level, the region is already subject to flooding. And water levels are modestly rising: They're up 1 ½ feet since the 1920s, according to a 2014 NPR report.
Mabus didn't say what he recommended military leaders do to slow the sea level rise or when he believed Norfolk might end up partly or completely underwater. But he said the Navy faces key security challenges today related to ice melt and changing seas.
"And as storms get bigger, as sea levels rise -- as any stability follows, our responsibilities increase," he said. "As the Arctic begins to be ice-free, Russia has already said the waters to its north are an internal waterway. They're not. Part of our responsibility is keeping the sea lanes open, making sure international law is followed."
The Arctic has become an increasingly popular topic of conversation among Navy brass. Leaders including the chief of naval operations, Adm. John Richardson, have said the Navy needs more funding to execute more frequent operations in the region as sea lanes remain open for significantly longer each year than they have in the past.
"Climate change and things like that, it's a risk in the future for things like Norfolk and our bases, but it's here today in terms of increasing our responsibilities, in terms of what we've got to respond to, in terms of how we have to position ourselves and how we have to think about our roles," Mabus said.