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Rising sea levels? U.S. builds radar site on island anyway

The equator-hugging island country consists of 29 atolls, comprising 1,558 individual islands, most of them between three and less than six feet above sea level.

The power and destructiveness of rising sea levels is an everyday worry to the Marshallese who already experience tidal flooding once or twice a month. Sea levels have risen over a foot in the past 30 years, faster than anywhere else on Earth.

Marshall Islands President Christopher Loeak  pictured in 2014 in front of his home in Majuro  raise...

Marshall Islands President Christopher Loeak, pictured in 2014 in front of his home in Majuro, raised the height of a seawall around his property following tidal floods in response to a “climate emergency”
Giff Johnson, AFP/File

So in 2015, the U.S. Air Force began construction of a one billion dollar radar installation on Kwajalein Island, the largest and southernmost island in the Kwajalein Atoll. The island is about 1.2 square miles in size and 2.5 miles long and 800 yards wide.

The radar installation, or Space Fence on the island, which the Pentagon has leased until 2066, will be used to track space junk, some pieces of debris as small as a baseball. That is unless climate change and rising sea levels get in the way.

The Associated Press, in an exclusive report, found that neither the Pentagon nor its contractor, Lockheed Martin, gave much consideration to warnings about rising sea levels from the Marshall Islands environmental agency.

Scientists are saying the Space Fence complex could be regularly assaulted by high waves and rising sea levels within the next couple of decades, with the salt water playing havoc on the equipment.

In discussing the future of the island, CTV News writes that Curt Storlazzi, an oceanographer with the U.S. Geological Survey who is leading a study at Kwajalein Atoll said, “it does not look good for a lot of these islands.”

But the U.S. Air Force has an answer for the rising seas problem. Dana Whalley, a civilian in charge of the Space Fence program, says the radar installation has a projected lifespan of 25 years, and he doesn’t think sea levels are going to rise that much to cause any problems. And if they do, the base can just improve the seawall.

Satellite map of the Marshall Islands.

Satellite map of the Marshall Islands.

Keeping track of our space debris
In 2009, an old Russian satellite crashed into a commercial U.S. satellite, leaving behind hundreds of pieces of space debris. In 2013, the movie, “Gravity” highlighted the threat of space junk to astronauts, whether traveling aboard the International Space Station or in a rocket.

It has become necessary to track all our space debris, simply to avoid any disastrous consequences. Hence, the need for a radar installation that will focus on all the junk orbiting the planet. Lockheed-Martin won the $915 million Space Fence contract in 2014 and began construction of the complex in 2015.

Sensors at the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site (RTS) at Kwajalein Atoll  Republic ...

Sensors at the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site (RTS) at Kwajalein Atoll, Republic of the Marshall Islands, located 2,300 miles southwest of Hawaii, are controlled at the Ronald Reagan Test Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site Operations Center in Huntsville.
U.S. Army

When the Space Fence becomes operational in 2018, it should be able to track about 200,000 objects orbiting the Earth, a ten-fold increase of our capabilities at the present time. The installation will have digital transmitters and receivers, as well as heating and cooling facilities. About 15 people will be operating and maintaining the facility.

Interestingly, Lockheed-Martin says that contract requirements only asked for a study on the facility’s ability to withstand an earthquake, with no mention of climate change. Lockheed only knew of an environmental assessment done in 2014 that said, “Based on historical data, there are no anticipated issues with ocean tide and/or wave flooding.”

The Marshall Islands Environmental Protection Authority, in its report, described the environmental assessment done by the military in 2014 as “wholly inadequate.” The military responded, its final report reading, “Detailed study of sea-level rise risks are beyond the scope of this document.”

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We are deeply saddened to announce the passing of our dear friend Karen Graham, who served as Editor-at-Large at Digital Journal. She was 78 years old. Karen's view of what is happening in our world was colored by her love of history and how the past influences events taking place today. Her belief in humankind's part in the care of the planet and our environment has led her to focus on the need for action in dealing with climate change. It was said by Geoffrey C. Ward, "Journalism is merely history's first draft." Everyone who writes about what is happening today is indeed, writing a small part of our history.

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