PARRIS ISLAND, SC – Rising seas permeate one of America’s most storied military installations, where thousands of recruits become Marines each year amid the salt marshes of South Carolina’s Lowcountry region.
The Parris Island Marine Corps Recruiting Depot is highly vulnerable to flooding, coastal erosion and other impacts of climate change, a Defense Department-funded “resilience review” noted last month. Some scientists project that by 2099, three-quarters of the island could be underwater at high tide each day.
Military authorities say they believe they can keep the second-oldest Marine Corps base intact, for now, through small-scale changes to existing infrastructure projects.
Major Marc Blair, Parris Island environmental director, described the strategy as “the art of the small”, a phrase he attributed to the base’s general commander, Brig. General Julie Nethercot. In practice, this means things like raising culverts which need to be repaired however, limiting development in low-lying areas and adding anti-flood measures to increase firing range.
Others advocate much larger and more expensive solutions, such as building a large seawall around the base, or moving Marine Corps training off the coast altogether.
Parris Island has played a major role in American military lore and pop culture as a proving ground for Marines who have served in every major conflict since World War I. The island remains an important training ground, along with the Marine Corps Recruiting Depot, San Diego. But the rising sea proved to be a formidable foe.
Salt marshes make up more than half of the base’s 8,000-acre (3,200-acre) base, and the depot’s highest point, near the fire station, is just 13 feet (4 meters) above sea level. It is linked to the mainland by one road which is already prone to flooding.
Low-lying areas on the island and nearby Marine Corps air stations are already flooded about ten times a year, and by 2050, “currently flood-prone areas at both bases could experience tidal flooding more than 300 times each year and be underwater for nearly 30 minutes.” times percent year in the highest scenario,” according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Decades of military reports have acknowledged threats from climate change to national security, as wildfires, hurricanes and floods have prompted evacuations and damaged bases. A Pentagon document published last fall, after President Joe Biden ordered federal agencies to revamp their climate resilience plans, said the Department of Defense now had a “comprehensive approach to building climate-ready installations” and cited adaptation and resilience studies conducted by Paris Island. .
But everyday annoyances are on the rise, from annoying flooding on the street to rising temperatures and higher humidity which, combined, limit the human body’s ability to cool itself with sweat.
Those wetter, hotter days can limit outdoor training. Already, more than 500 people on Parris Island suffered heat stroke and heat exhaustion between 2016 and 2020, placing the base among the top ten US military installations for heat illness, according to the Armed Forces Health Oversight Branch.
All the training that took place on Parris Island could technically be replicated on cooler, drier soil elsewhere, said the retired Brigadier General. General Stephen Cheney, who served as commander general at the base from 1999 to 2001.
But Cheney doesn’t see any desire by Congress to close the base and relocate its mission to a less risky location, which means the administration needs to start investing in structural solutions to protect critical components such as firing ranges near the water, he said. in an interview with The Associated Press.
Spending millions to build a seawall would be cheaper than spending billions to rebuild a base after a devastating storm, Cheney reasons.
Parris Island has so far avoided a direct hit that has caused billions of damage to other military installations, but has been evacuated twice in the past five years because of the hurricane, which hits South Carolina on average every eight years.
In 2018, Hurricane Florence hit Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, washing away beaches used by Marines for training, destroying buildings, and displacing personnel. A month later, Hurricane Michael tore through Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida, destroying aircraft hangars and causing $3 billion in damage.
The disasters should serve as a cautionary tale for Parris Island, Cheney said. But no major overhaul is currently planned — no concrete bulkhead or other seawall that could dramatically revise the visual character of the post, no master plan to raise the building all at once.
Hurricane planning is focused on protecting life and preserving the equipment and buildings needed to limit training disruptions, said Colonel William Truax, the depot’s director of installations and logistics.
“We didn’t take on any big projects because we didn’t run into any major threats to what we had to do here,” Truax said. “To be honest, this old brick building is not going anywhere.”
Parris Island also depends on the resilience of the communities around the base. Stephanie Rossi, a planner at the Lowcountry Council of Governments, said a Defense Department-funded group study on the effects of climate change suggested shoring up the only roads on and off the island, elevating buildings and strengthening rainwater systems in areas where military families live. .
The base also works with environmental groups to support vibrant coastline projects, building coastal oyster reefs to strengthen natural buffers against floods and hurricanes.
“The water will recede,” said Blair, director of the environment. “The tougher we are to build this place, the sooner we can get back to making the Marines.”
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