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The Marine Corps' Parris Island is a role model for coping with climate change


Parris Island on the marshy, hurricane-prone South Carolina coast is regarded as the Marine Corps installation most in peril from climate change. Now it's becoming a model for other military bases on combating climate effects. Jay Price of member station WUNC reports from South Carolina's Lowcountry

JAY PRICE, BYLINE: Scientists think a permanent solution to the rising water here isn't possible, so the question is how to keep enough of the iconic training base for new recruits above water, at least for a few more decades. Tracey Spencer, the base environmental director, stands atop one of the causeways on Parris Island that support major roads.

TRACEY SPENCER: This road is about 10 feet above sea level.

PRICE: She points across a saltwater pond to another road named Malecon Drive.

SPENCER: And Malecon is not. But whenever that road is repaved, we'll probably do the art of the small.

PRICE: The art of the small - that's a phrase they use here a lot. In this case, it means wait till the road needs repaving, and then spend a little more to raise it higher, rather than spend millions now to lift the road while the pavement is still good. One projection says low areas here could flood more than 300 times a year by 2050. Base officials don't think the water will rise that quickly, but Spencer says that they're still taking some steps.

SPENCER: Whether the model shows that it's a six-inch difference or a 16-foot difference, it doesn't matter. If we raise the road two feet, it's still a benefit to us. If we plant native plants, it's still a benefit to us.

PRICE: The art of the small is expected to play a key role in new climate resilience plans the Navy will finish next month for Parris Island and Naval Station San Diego. Meredith Berger is an assistant secretary of the Navy. She says these plans will help the Navy figure out how to craft similar ones for more than 90 other installations.

MEREDITH BERGER: So one Marine Corps base, one Navy base, but places where we have the opportunity to learn.

PRICE: The art of the small isn't new. For years, the Navy has done things like build piers higher when it's time to replace them. But Berger said Parris Island has helped institutionalize the approach.

BERGER: Finding every opportunity to make a little change that has a big impact - that is an ethos. That is an approach that everyone is taking because we need to be thinking about this at every turn.

PRICE: At Parris Island, the Navy has already taken steps like rebuilding key parts of shooting ranges higher and farther from the shore. It's also added solar panels and giant Tesla batteries to make the power grid more storm resistant. And it's planting new oyster beds to protect the shoreline. But still...

ROB YOUNG: They will have to abandon that base and those activities at some point in the future. That's certain.

PRICE: Rob Young heads the program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University. Less certain, he says, is the timeline, which depends partly on whether humans begin to slow the effects of climate change. But the fact that, eventually, Parris Island will have to close doesn't mean that has to happen any time soon.

YOUNG: I think there are places in this country that we will spend money on even for short-term solutions.

PRICE: He cites Tidewater, Va., where he grew up. It's home to a host of crucial military installations, and flooding is already a big problem there. Young says he'd never say it's pointless to spend money at places like Parris Island to slow the impacts.

YOUNG: As long as DOD and base command is really taking seriously this idea that they're not going to be there 50 years from now.

PRICE: So unless something like catastrophic hurricane damage changes the equation, the art of the small, along with some larger measures, could make sense - for at least a while longer.

For NPR News, I'm Jay Price at Parris Island, S.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jay Price is the military and veterans affairs reporter for North Carolina Public Radio - WUNC.