Thursday, 16 January 2020

NASA's sand dune solution

ANTHROPOGENIC climate change and its associated rise in sea levels could prove a significant threat to some of the world’s iconic coastal space launch sites, including Florida’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC).

NASA is building a massive artificial dune along a stretch of the coast in a bid to protect the nation’s only launch site for human missions - but many experts say that ultimately it isn’t going to be enough.

Even conservative estimates suggest the low-lying Florida peninsula can expect to experience at least 5 to 8 inches of sea level rise by the 2050s, a figure which could double or treble if global warming is not contained at current levels.

Launch Complex 39A, the historic Apollo 11 and Space Shuttle launch pad that SpaceX now leases for its Falcon Heavy rocket, is one of the most vulnerable, as the base of the pad sits only a few feet above sea level and is just a quarter mile from the coastline.

The founding fathers of the US space programme chose a barrier island to launch rockets into space for safety reasons, preferring out of control rockets to explode over the ocean rather than land. But the very quality that makes this location a safe spot for launches threatens to be its downfall.
This year, the pad 39A complex is estimated to face a 14 percent annual risk of flooding, a figure which is likely to rise unless additional measures are taken to protect it, according an analysis released in late 2019 by Climate Central, an international organisation researching and reporting the science and impacts of climate change.
Predictions are equally uncertain for launch complex 39B, the future home of NASA’s SLS rocket which will be used to launch the first people to the Moon by 2024. The current annual flood risk, estimated at six percent, is likely to double within two decades.

It is unclear how much damage sea floods could cause to the actual launch pads but, at the minimum, rising water could isolate the complexes as inaccessible islands, also threatening support roadways and other infrastructure.

At the same time, natural barriers along the coastline are also eroding. Based on historical records and aerial photos, the beach in front of the Cape Canaveral area has thinned and moved inland by as much as 200 feet. Losses have been most severe along the stretch near pads 39A and 39B.

NASA biologist Don Dankert, technical lead for KSC’s environmental planning office, is charged with protecting the agency’s valuable launch assets. “Climate change is obviously important to the agency,” he says. “Looking into the future and how we address this with our infrastructure in our inland areas is a top priority.”

After studying various engineering solutions, Dankert and his team settled on constructing hefty inland sand dunes as a barrier between Florida’s launch pads and the encroaching ocean.

AS a result, NASA is currently using 350,000 cubic yards of sand to build a 3.2 mile long dune 17 feet high and 90 feet wide. The sand is being trucked from an inland source and is matched to the sand that is on local beaches for grain texture and size consistency. Once complete the dune will be covered with native vegetation to help maintain its integrity. 

But as global temperatures continue to climb and with forecasters warning of more frequent and stronger hurricanes, not everyone is convinced. Joseph Donoghue, an ocean sciences professor at the University of Central Florida, is assessing the effects of major storms on coastal environments at the National Center of Integrated Coastal Research.

“Sure, dunes are a good short-term solution. But the dunes are only good for as long as no major hurricanes come through,” he says. “Long-term, dunes aren’t going to do the job.”

NASA reckons the $35 million it is spending on the shoreline restoration project, which is expected to be completed by the end of the year, is money well spent. But according to Leesa Souto, Executive Director of the Marine Resources Council and Assistant Professor of Ocean Engineering at Florida Institute of Technology, sand dunes and sea walls only protect against storm surges and do not address flooding from rising groundwater.

“It's not just flooding from the ocean that we are concerned about; a rising sea level also increases pressure inland, causing the groundwater to rise,” she explains. “The launch pads are particularly vulnerable because they are out on a peninsula in the middle of the ocean between the estuary and the ocean.”

"Ground water is sea level so when sea level rises, ground water rises. So when the elevation of the land and the elevation of groundwater are the same, you have a lake," she added.

“So unless they’re going to build the launch pads on the top of the 17 foot dune they are going to be under water.”

The Jeff Bezos-led Blue Origin commercial spaceflight company, which is pumping a billion dollars into the Space Coast area as a launch base for its New Shepard rocket, is taking no chances. The company leases Launch Complex 36 and is currently building it both out and upwards. “The base of our rocket will be 50 feet above the ground, which is 20 feet above the 100 year flood plain,” says Scott Henderson, Blue Origin's vice president of test and flight operations.

Space Launch Complexes 40 and 41, which could be the site of the first commercial rocket launch of American astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS), are also at significant risk from future flooding, according to Climate Central's analysis.

United Launch Alliance (ULA), which leases space complexes 41 and 37 from the US Air Force, is not currently addressing climate change related impacts. “It becomes a real challenge of ‘what are you going to try to mitigate?’ and ‘what are you going to accept as an acceptable risk?’ So we’ve tried to balance that,” says Mark Dornseif, senior manager of engineering and infrastructure at ULA.

For an industry that routinely talks about its costs in millions, the billion dollar question remains: how viable will Kennedy Space Center be in the future? Florida’s Space Coast economy, which earns around $3 billion a year from ‘space’, is certainly banking on its success as long as possible.

But Blue Origin's Henderson envisions a time when there will be thousands of spaceports across the world and that, ultimately, Cape Canaveral may prove to have been just a starting point for human space exploration. “Today we’re constrained to coastal areas but in the long haul you need to be flexible and reliable enough to fly from lots of places," he says.

This is an extended version of an article first published 
by Clive Simpson on the ROOM Space Journal website.

Friday, 10 January 2020

Suffolk sojourn

Photo: Clive Simpson
THE side of Sussie’s Beach Hut Café on Southwold seafront didn’t have the best of views. The cool North Sea stretched to the left and, opposite the walkway to old concrete steps from the beach to the cliff road, began a series of colourful beach huts for which this part of Suffolk is quite famous.

Climb a few metres to the top of these steps, and Gun Hill has a much more open vista. As the name suggests the cliff walk is  still resplendent with an array of cannons aimed menacingly out over the North Sea. Today they stand on ceremony only, overlooking the colourful beach huts and traditional beach cafe.

In the late September sunshine the side bench at the café was wonderfully secluded from the stiff onshore breeze. There was a blue plastic, rectangular table to my left as I sat down to re-hydrate with a bottle of water. Underneath the table, almost to big for it, was a scruffy mass of grey hair, half standing half crouching and looking rather awkward. It had a pointy nose and sorrowful dark eyes. It was Ben, an Irish Wolfhound, I discovered as the lady sipping tea on the seat beside tried to cajole him into lying down.

The dog’s owner had a thin face too, though her nose was less pointy. She had shortish, straight hair and was probably in her late 60's. “Lovely to see you - have you missed a few afternoons?” she inquired of a blond-haired friend of equal vintage who came to sit down beside me. I almost felt part of the conversation.

“It was a lovely morning but I’ve decided I’m going to stop swimming,” she answered in a kind of high-pitched, whiny way. “Are you going to go through?” I realised that these hardy coastal ladies were talking about their daily, or weekly, sea swim. “It’s beginning to get chilly, and I have to be careful with my chest,” she added. I got the mental picture as the conversation rose and dove through swimming, sea temperatures and cold showers.

By now Ben was sprawled across the cold floor. It didn’t seem to bother him and I guess he had heard the conversation all before. His black nose poked out from under the table. “Bye Ben,” I muttered, as I set off to climb the steps to the road above, leading to the dunes and a brisk walk to catch the last ferry across the river before the close of day.

I had long wanted to visit Southwold and a weekend break at the village of Eye about 20 miles inland had provide the ideal opportunity.

In place name lore, Eye derives from the old English word for an island and, in Saxon times, such a place was generally surrounded by water. Though that is certainly not the case today, the neighbourhood retains its marshy nature in places. The ‘island’ in this part of Suffolk was originally formed by the low-lying water meadows of the River Dove.

Whilst on place names it struck me that originality does not always triumph over practicality. There are many “Eye’s” scattered across the country, including one close to my own hailing ground of Peterborough. And of course, there’s a beautiful River Dove cutting a different course in the Derbyshire Dales, my county of birth.

The small coastal village of Walberswick is probably more unusual when it comes to both naming and pronunciation. It’s adjacent to Southwold but neatly separated from it by the River Blyth which had flowed into its tidal estuary at this point.

The walk between the two settlements is an easy and popular stroll. The only decision is whether to take the Baily bridge across the river a short stretch to the north of the town, or pay to be rowed across the flowing Blythe in the tiny foot ferry, or large rowing boat depending on your perspective.

It’s a short crossing and the boatsman or woman skilfully guide the boat against the outgoing or incoming tide. From the ferry landing jetty there is a sheltered path in the lee of the dunes, or you can walk in the brazen North Sea air across the dipping dunes themselves.

Southwold is often depicted as the sort of seaside town that everyone thought had vanished into the past. But this small resort, and a few precious others like it, do still exist - and despite the trappings of modernity are relatively unspoilt. 

With its signature lighthouse, pier over the sea and rows of colourful beach huts, the town retains much of its original charm and character, though no doubt some of the die-hard locals like our swimming ladies would beg to differ. It does, however, still evoke that unfathomable touch of nostalgia for a time gone by, but it has also become increasingly trendy in recent years.

Where else, for example, would you find a Bentley, pristine open top sports cars and the latest, fashionable four-by-fours parked in a row along the cliff top sea road during a sunny September afternoon stroll towards the pier?

Camomile Cottage B&B.
About 40 minutes drive from Southwold, the 16th century timber framed Suffolk farmhouse that is now Camomile Cottage B&B nestles off a private lane lined with towering oak trees.

The French doors of the breakfast room embrace the east-facing decking, a perfect spot to enjoy the first rays of sunshine on late summer days such as this. Giant popular trees rise to the left, noisy in the morning breeze, and a beech hedge runs the length to the end of the garden, defining borders and a wide lawn path. At the far end a wooden seat looks back towards the house.

Later, in the afternoon, when the sun has shifted to the south west, shafts of sunlight cut through the side windows and skylights, and reflect interesting patterns onto the tiled floor from the antique wall mirrors. A gentle breeze spills through the open patio doors. It is a room of delightful light and relaxation.

It is easy to fall in love with a home like this where character and history is etched into every nook and cranny, and piece of decoration.

The quirky Camomile Cottage was once a 16th century timber framed Suffolk farmhouse. The traditional, grade II listed building has been tastefully restored and extended over recent years.

It offers luxury B&B accommodation in two bedrooms - one with an intriguingly slopey floor - along with an open fireplace in the cosy guest lounge, exposed original timbers and a romantic period-style finish, all reflecting the warm character of host Aly Kahane and her friendly mut, Fozzie.

Aly Kahane.
Aly, who has been running the B&B for almost 18 years, was the perfect hostess and made us feel very at home. A homemade welcome cake, delicious cooked breakfasts and easy relaxation. In this beautiful and charming setting, away from the busyness of everyday life, there was ample time to linger, to ponder and refresh.

September 2019 - Camomile Cottage B&B