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The Changing Carolina Coast: Camp Lejeune And Climate Change

Dave DeWitt
Antonio Rodriguez, right, and graduate students Justin Ridge and Ethan Theuerkauf using a vibracore on Onslow Beach at Camp Lejeune.

For a coastal geologist, a vibracore is like a time machine. As a generator vibrates a long aluminum tube, Professor Antonio Rodriguez and his two graduate students force it deep into the Onslow Beach sand.

When they pull it up a few minutes later, it reveals several thousand years of history.

“We can see how the barriers evolved through time based on these cores,” says Rodriguez, from the UNC-Chapel Hill Institute of Marine Sciences. “So what’s happening is the barrier is moving landward. And its’ moving landward on top of the land that is behind it.

And what’s behind it is back-barrier marsh and the Intracoastal Waterway. And behind that are the 150,000 acres of estuary, bombing ranges, tank-training areas, endangered species, barracks, and even unexploded ordinance that make up Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune.

Onslow Beach is not some off-the-beaten path public beach, or a protected national seashore. It’s nine miles of amphibious training area – the largest such area the military owns in the country.

And it’s in serious trouble.

“This is probably one of the most vulnerable beaches I have ever seen to sea-level rise.,” says Rodriguez. “And part of it is, it’s so narrow where we are. And it’s low elevation. And it’s very vulnerable to overwash.”

Rodriguez is conducting this research as part of the Defense Coastal Estuarine Research Program. DCERP is a multi-discipline, multi-year, multi-million dollar study of the entire Camp Lejeune ecosystem. It involves RTI International, seven universities and a variety of other researchers.

“The DCERP research is really important to the military, not only to Camp Lejeune but to other installations in these coastal areas as they want to understand how to sustain the use of the installation lands for military training into the future,” says Pat Cunningham with RTI International and the principal investigator.

Came Lejeune
Credit Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune
A large portion of Camp Lejeune is threatened by rising waters due to its location along the coast and estuaries.

 Leaders at Camp Lejeune and the military are reacting to sea-level rise not because it’s politically prudent to do so. In fact, individual members of the military frequently express off-the-record doubts about man-made climate changes. But they have a mission, and that means dealing with the conditions on the ground.

“The military is very progressive and very proactive,” says Cunningham. “They have to sustain the land that they have. There’s no new land they are going to obtain. So they really have to well-maintain the land that they have, for the training they want to conduct.”

Camp Lejeune officials declined to comment to WUNC on how climate change is affecting their base or their mission, but all members of the armed forces know the importance of taking orders.

And their Commander-In-Chief has recently been quite clear on this topic.

“I’m here to say today that climate change constitutes a serious threat to global security,” President Barack Obama told the graduates at last month’s Coast Guard Academy Commencement. “An immediate risk to our national security. And make no mistake, it will impact how our military defends our country.”

Amid the ancient oyster fossils and driftwood scattered across the sand at Onslow Beach, Rodriguez and his graduate students aren’t wielding weapons, but their tools may prove even more important to the future of the marines.

After the last aluminum vibracore tube is loaded into his truck, Rodriguez explains how Camp Lejeune is managing this environment and training ground well by keeping vehicles off the dunes and not overusing any one location.

And he offers this advice for the future: “Don’t build up the barrier any larger than it is right now in terms of infrastructure and buildings, because that investment is not going to last very long.”

The DCERP research team will present its final findings to the military in 2017.

Dave DeWitt is WUNC's Supervising Editor for Politics and Education. As an editor, reporter, and producer he's covered politics, environment, education, sports, and a wide range of other topics.
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