The leaders of our armed forces know what's coming next – but deniers in Congress are ignoring the warnings.
Naval station Norfolk is the headquarters of the U.S. Navy's Atlantic fleet, an awesome collection of military power that is in a terrible way the crowning glory of American civilization. Seventy-five thousand sailors and civilians work here, their job the daily business of keeping an armada spit-shined and ready for deployment at any moment. When I visited in December, the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt was in port, a 1,000-foot-long floating war machine that was central to U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Cranes loaded equipment onto the deck; sailors rushed up and down the gangplanks. Navy helicopters hovered overhead. Security was tight everywhere. While I was checking out one of the base's massive new double-decker concrete piers that's nearly as big as a shopping-mall parking lot, I wandered over to have a closer look at the USS Gravely, a guided-missile destroyer that has spent a lot of hours on watch in the Mediterranean. Armed men on the deck watched me warily — even my official escort seemed jittery ("I think we should step back a bit," he said, grabbing my arm).
You can't spend 10 minutes in this part of Virginia without feeling the deep sense of history. The Battle of Hampton Roads, a famous naval showdown between two Civil War ironclads, occurred just offshore. The base was a key departure point for thousands of sailors during World War II, many of whom never returned. Their ghosts still haunt the place. Everyone's aunt or uncle has a story to tell about a night in a port in Brisbane or Barcelona or about the way their ears rang the first time they heard a cannon firing from the deck of a ship.
But within the lifetime of a child growing up here, all this could vanish into the Atlantic Ocean. The land that the base is built upon is literally sinking, meaning sea levels are rising in Norfolk roughly twice as fast as the global average. There is no high ground, nowhere to retreat. It feels like a swamp that has been dredged and paved over — and that's pretty much what it is. All it takes is a rainstorm and a big tide and the Atlantic invades the base — roads are submerged, entry gates impassable. A nor'easter had moved through the area the day before my visit. On Craney Island, the base's main refueling depot, military vehicles were up to their axles in seawater. Water pooled in a long, flat grassy area near Admiral's Row, where naval commanders live in magnificent houses built for the 1907 Jamestown Exposition. "It's the biggest Navy base in the world, and it's going to have to be relocated," says former Vice President Al Gore. "It's just a question of when."
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