Waves washing over a Pacific Atoll spells catastrophe for 'premier' ballistic missile defense site.

If you’re asking when climate change is going to “happen,” you’re really asking when’s it going to happen to “me,” because it’s already happened to many other people. Eric Roston

During WWII the United States took control over the Marshall Islands (Aolepān Aorōkin M̧ajeļ), a part of the larger island group of Micronesia located near the equator.

Wikia gives a brief history of the American presence in the Marshall Islands, “In World War II, the islands were conquered by the United States in the Gilbert and Marshall Islands campaign. Along with other Pacific Islands, the Marshall Islands consolidated as part of the United-States-governed Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands. Self-government achieved in 1979. Full sovereignty in 1986, under a Compact of Free Association with the United States”.

The US was not a very lovely caretaker for the Marshallian people or their land. Between 1946 and 1958, over 46 nuclear weapons dropped on the Marshall Islands.

The most massive nuclear warhead ever dropped on earth occurred on Bikini Atoll during this time. The radioactive fallout made Bikini and numerous other atolls so contaminated that they are still uninhabitable. Residents became quite ill and had no choice but to abandon their homes that their ancestors settled in 2000 BC.

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These isolated atolls are facing a new threat that will force inhabitants of the low-lying Pacific island chains to relocate. The misery they are experiencing today is a result of the current climate crisis that has resulted in rising sea levels as the polar ice caps discharge ice and meltwater into the oceans.



Not only are freshwater supplies and the water in coconuts radioactive. Now agricultural land and potable water supplies have been rendered useless as saltwater has washed over their crops, inundating the island’s ability to support life.

From the USGS Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center on the inundation scenario of Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site:

In a report requested by the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), the USGS and partners forecast that the “tipping point” – the time at which potable groundwater on Roi-Namur Island will be unavailable due to wave-driven flooding – is projected to be reached around the year 2035 for the most extreme scenario.

“Buildings, roads, and airports will be swamped by storm waves annually,” said lead author Dr. Curt Storlazzi, a USGS research geologist. “Yearly flooding by seawater, combined with slightly reduced rainfall, will result in the islands on Kwajalein Atoll not having a reliable natural source of fresh water. In the worst-case scenario, without significant infrastructure investments, many low-lying Pacific coral islands could reach a tipping point, becoming uninhabitable and unusable, before mid-century.”

The 138-page peer-reviewed report was the result of more than four years of research by scientists from the USGS, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Deltares research institute in the Netherlands, and the University of Hawaiʻi. DOD asked for the analysis to better understand the impacts of climate change on critical facilities in the tropical Pacific, and to plan for adapting to these changes.

The study took place on Roi-Namur Island in the western Pacific Ocean, part of Kwajalein Atoll in the Republic of the Marshall Islands. The atoll is home to the Reagan Test Site (PDF), a multi-billion-dollar facility used to track satellites, ballistic missiles, and missile defense systems.

The researchers focused on forecasting “tipping points” – when the combination of sea-level rise, storm wave-driven overwash, and reduced rainfall becomes so frequent that existing buildings, fresh water sources, and other infrastructure become unsustainable. Since 1990, sea level in the western Pacific Ocean has risen two to three times faster than the global average. Adding storm waves means flooding on atoll islands could be worse and happen sooner. And climate change forecasts call for slightly reduced rainfall on the islands, making the fresh water problem even more challenging.

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The tipping point when natural fresh groundwater on Roi-Namur and adjacent islands will be unavailable could arrive before 2035 for the worst-case climate scenario. On top of that, most of Roi-Namur’s land could flood with seawater every year starting around 2060–another tipping point. And the tipping point for drinkable groundwater on most low-lying atoll islands world-wide could occur as early as the 2030s.

The Defense Department chose three widely-accepted climate change and sea-level rise scenarios for the study. The first, based on reduced greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century, is known as RCP4.5. RCP8.5 assumes “business as usual” growth in carbon emissions. The third adds polar ice sheet collapse to RCP8.5 to create a worst-case scenario.

Congress cited early results from this study in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018: “In the Marshall Islands, an Air Force radar installation built on an atoll at a cost of $1,000,000,000 is projected to be underwater within two decades.” Previous research showed that similar problems face other low-lying Pacific islands, including Laysan Island and Midway Atoll (see “Many Atolls May be Uninhabitable Within Decades Due to Climate Change”).

The U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command Technical Center describes the facility and the mission.

The U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command Technical Center’s Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site is located at the U.S. Army Garrison-Kwajalein Atoll, Republic of the Marshall Islands in the Central Pacific Ocean. RTS conducts 24/7 space operations to provide space situational awareness and the protection of key space assets supporting U.S. Central Command, U.S. Pacific Command and U.S. Northern Command. Radar, optical and telemety sensors on the atoll support missile testing, missile launches, space reconnaissance and surveillance operations, and science experiments for the Department of Defense and multiple other government agencies. The instrumentation is strategically situated on the atoll to collect metric and signature data for characterizing missile and satellite systems. In addition, RTS is ideally located for observation of new foreign launches and a variety of low-inclination satellite orbits