NASA Aims for Space and Battles Erosion on Wallops Island

Apr 17, 2019

NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on the Eastern Shore sits at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. 

It's a climate change hot spot, where rising waters and stronger storms are eroding about 12 feet of shoreline every year.  For NASA, science and persistence are major tools in climate resilience.

Not all beaches erode equally. And that's the crux of the problem for NASA's $1.2 billion flight facility built on a barrier island to reduce risk to people. The beach helps to protect the island. But, the thing about barrier islands is they are always moving and changing, and the area where launches take place sits at an erosion hot spot.

"So, if you're sitting on the beach, you look to your right, all the sand is moving to your right. You look to the left and all the sand is moving to the left," Christopher Hein explains. "Which means there's no sand coming to where you are and, it's all leaving where you are, in fact. Hence, an erosion hot spot."

Hein is a coastal geologist at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science who has been working with NASA to better understand how climate change might affect Wallops Island and the northern islands of Chincoteague and Assateague.

Christopher Hein with a team taking core samples on the Eastern Shore.
Credit Christopher Hein

Like a detective, he combs through old geologic records, collects sediment cores and uses ground penetrating radar to understand the history.  "One of the most dynamic places to watch in the world, if you want to see coastal change, southern Assateague Island. You can actually watch, it has doubled in size in the last 50 years, that southern tip of the island. As it does so, it affects everything around that inlet and Wallops Island to the south," Hein describes.

Assateague's southern tip is often called the wagging dog's tail because of its similar movement. And while it's responsible for Wallop's erosion problem now, Hein says that may change.  "As Assateague grows to the south, that hot spot on Wallops shifts to the south and eventually, and we don't know if it's going to be ten years, fifty years, a hundred years but it will eventually move all the way down to most likely, Assawoman Island, one island to the south. And then most of Wallops will be in the shadow of Assateague Island much the same way that Chincoteague is today."

NASA shares the island with the U. S. Navy and the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport. Along its coast, the Atlantic crashes on a massive three-mile-long, 14-foot-high sea wall near one of the launch pads used for ISS supply missions. The beach that used to be here has been moved, part of it just north, mostly by nor'easters. In 2012, just two months after another replenishment project armored the shoreline with the sea wall and sand, Hurricane Sandy arrived.

Paul Bull is deputy division chief managing Goddard Space Flight Center and describes the damage.  "It tore the beach up that we put in, but not a single thing happened on this island. Hurricanes do damage to us but our biggest problem are nor'easters. They just sit here and churn for days on end and just tear the shoreline up."

The latest plan by the Army Corps of Engineers will install breakwaters and mine sand from their growing northern beach, after nesting season for birds and sea turtles. In all, the equivalent of about 60,000 dump truck loads of sand will replenish nearly 4 miles of lost beach.

"There's a lot of science behind what we do," Bull says.  "We're not just getting sand and throwing it on the beach. Without Sandy maybe it would still look a little better but it still would have been diminished. It's just over time nature takes its course."

As sea levels rise and storms become more frequent and stronger, Bull expects the Corps will return in five to seven years to once again put back the sand. Meantime, Hein will spend the next three years studying the area to provide a critical planning and management tool for the flight facility and spaceport.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.