Researchers: Rising sea levels having effects at Kennedy Space Center

1.2 miles of dunes built to protect launch complex

By Paul Giorgio - Producer

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. - It's a coastline like no other. A pristine, untouched, Florida landscape with the history of space exploration on its shores.

[WEB EXTRA: Pictures show beach erosion along KSC ]

The Kennedy Space Center has sent manned rockets into space, launching them over the Atlantic Ocean, for nearly 50 years. 

Now researchers say a section of beachfront just beyond the iconic launchpads 39A and 39B is washing away at an alarming rate.

University of Florida researchers say climate change and rising sea levels are to blame.

Associate professor of geological sciences, John Jaeger and assistant professor Peter Adams have been monitoring the shores of KSC on a monthly basis for 5 years.

They say in that time, they've  found the area of primary concern to NASA is actually predisposed to erosion.

The project started when NASA partnered with the U.S. Geological Survey and UF to figure out why chronic erosion was happening along a roughly 6-mile stretch between launch pads 39A and 39B.

The problem had been occurring for years but when Florida endured three hurricanes within weeks of each other in 2004 a large portion of coastline was lost.   

Using GPS monitors, Jaeger and Adams gathered precise elevations of the beach and dunes along KSC property. 

"The area that's eroding is one where it was very sensitive to little tipping points," Jaeger says. "Gradually, the shoreline is moving closer and closer and that's largely a function of sea level rise impacting this little area."

They say having access to unspoiled beach for such an extended period of time has generated data unrivaled in their field.

"It's one of the best data sets scientifically we know of," Adams says. "Most of the time science projects don't get to carry on for this long at that high-resolution frequency."

They say the data shows a dynamic shoreline, ebbing and flowing with the seasons but over time it adds up to general erosion. In fact they say photo evidence reveals nearly half a football field has been lost in the last 60 years. 

This can be seen on the ground where an old rail line, running parallel to the beach and originally built on solid ground well inland, is now covered in beach sand. A large section already removed because storm surge washed away its track bed.

Adams says their research also reveals that wave direction may be playing a part in erosion.

"You can look at the long-term records and say 'wow on average they're shifting the direction that they're coming from.'" Adams said.

His theory is the shoreline adjusts to waves coming in from one direction but when the direction changes due to climate change the shoreline is affected.  

"So the evidence that we're seeing is that the shoreline is definitely retreating in some places faster than others, in some places alarmingly fast," Adams says. "So if protecting these locations is of national interest or even local interest, something, a plan has to be put together.'

That plan is a 1.2-mile man-made dune. The project was completed last year, built in the most critical area. KSC officials say an additional 3.5 miles are planned for the future.

Adams says it's an important step. He says maintaining dune integrity is key to protecting valuable infrastructure.

"What we see is that when big storms come and when they do top the dune that's kind of unrecoverable, so in those places where the dune has been over-topped the erosion is proceeding much more quickly."

The University of Florida plans to continue monitoring the seashore into the future. 

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