Last month, Hurricane Idalia slammed parts of Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas. It also threatened to devastate one of only two US bases that host nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines.
Located in Camden County, Georgia—just north of the Florida border—Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay is the Atlantic hub of the US nuclear submarine fleet. It’s tasked with maintaining and servicing these billion dollar systems and their nuclear missiles, which the United States relies on to assure its capacity to launch a nuclear strike “anywhere, anytime.”
Hurricane Idalia put this key nuclear mission at risk.
Idalia’s wrath. As the storm barreled near, state and local authorities did their best to prepare, declaring states of emergency and issuing evacuation orders. They weren’t alone. Military bases along the southeastern coastline battened down the hatches, preparing their facilities, systems, and personnel for the worst.
This isn’t the first time the military has dealt with powerful storms and their devastating aftermath. Take Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida, where a Category 5 hurricane caused catastrophic damage in 2018. At a cost of $5 billion, the base is still rebuilding, making significant efforts to ensure it’s resilient to the most powerful storms.
In anticipation of Idalia, Kings Bay operations and personnel were seriously curtailed. Four nuclear submarines undergoing maintenance had to be tightly tethered with heavy weather moorings. Base movements were strictly limited. On-base facilities, including the nursery, health clinic, and commissary, were closed. And civilian employees and dependents were ordered to evacuate according to local authorities’ guidance.
While Idalia’s eventual downgrade from a Category 4 hurricane to a tropical storm meant the worst devastation was avoided, the storm—and flooding and storm surge left in its wake—still wreaked havoc. Homes and business were destroyed, hundreds of thousands were affected by power outages, schools closed, the list goes on.
Kings Bay seems to have dodged the worst. Reports indicate the installation experienced minimal damage and resumed normal operations the morning after the storm passed.
But the base may not be so lucky next time. Hurricanes are only expected to get worse as global temperatures rise. A warmer ocean and atmosphere fuel the evaporation-condensation cycle that powers hurricanes, causing more rain, stronger winds, and so, more powerful storms. Idalia’s rapid intensification amid unseasonably warm ocean temperatures in the Gulf suggest this phenomenon may well already be underway.
The direct impacts of, say, Category 4 hurricane winds of up to 156 miles (251 kilometers) per hour would be devastating enough for Kings Bay. Add in storm surge—which, paired with sea level rise, is going to expose more of the base to deeper flooding as the century progresses—and it’s not difficult to envision that the collective impacts of a hurricane could severely undermine the base’s capacity to function—and deliver its nuclear mission.
Weathering more than hurricanes. Although climate science can tell us that warming will make hurricanes more severe, it is exceedingly difficult to project whether these extreme weather events will be more frequent.
Sea level rise and annual flooding, on the other hand, can be reasonably projected into the future. And these climate change effects alone could significantly affect Kings Bay’s capacity to service and maintain the nuclear submarines based there. Over the next few decades, various climate change scenarios project that rising waters will inundate not just waterfront facilities, but also a key road connecting the on-base nuclear missile facility to the waterfront (see Figure 1). These climate effects therefore may not only disrupt base operations and submarine servicing—as did Idalia—but they could also potentially delay the transport and maintenance of the submarines’ nuclear missiles, with serious implications for the readiness of the SSBN fleet.
The Navy stares down this new reality as it prepares to deploy the modernized Columbia-class submarine to Kings Bay. These submarines will replace the current Ohio-class fleet starting in the 2030s and are expected to be in service until the 2070-80s. The new submarines are part of a larger effort to modernize the entire US nuclear arsenal to ensure it can protect the United States and its allies for decades to come, a multi-billion—if not -trillion—dollar investment.
Climate change stands to challenge these modernized systems and their deterrence mission. And these challenges aren’t isolated to systems hosted at coastal nuclear facilities like Kings Bay. Warming temperatures could accelerate extreme flooding that may limit access to intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) silos and facilities at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota. This problem of accessibility, in turn, could reduce the reliability of some ICBMs by delaying critical maintenance or deliveries. Meanwhile, extreme heat and flash flooding could affect the times and conditions when stealth nuclear bombers can take off from or land at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, which could have implications for the readiness of the larger bomber fleet.
Kings Bay’s near miss with Hurricane Idalia illustrates the range of new challenges and threats climate change poses to the entire US nuclear arsenal. As these challenges risk detrimental impacts to the “backbone of America’s national security,” the military will have to prepare its critical—and limited—nuclear weapons facilities to weather more than just hurricanes.
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