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As rising sea level chomps at Cape Canaveral, NASA uses nature-friendly solution

Above, research student Kyle Sexton stands in a depression behind a beach berm at low tide along the Cape Canaveral shoreline. The all-terrain vehicle is equipped with global positioning equipment to help measure beach erosion in the area.
Above, research student Kyle Sexton stands in a depression behind a beach berm at low tide along the Cape Canaveral shoreline. The all-terrain vehicle is equipped with global positioning equipment to help measure beach erosion in the area.
Published Dec. 30, 2014

Along Florida's most famous slice of waterfront, the water is taking a bigger and bigger bite. As the level of the Atlantic Ocean has pushed higher, it has begun gobbling up the shoreline along Cape Canaveral.

A railroad that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration built along the beach in the 1960s began being routinely covered by waves during storms. Meanwhile, dunes were leveled that once protected Kennedy Space Center, no matter how high the tide.

Scientists from the University of Florida and the U.S. Geological Survey began studying the problem in 2009, finding that what was going on could not be explained by typical Florida beach erosion. This was climate change at work, with a warmer ocean expanding beyond its old bounds.

To deal with the problem, NASA came up with a solution beyond the typical Florida beach renourishment project, one that saved money and is likely to last a lot longer than a beach renourishment project would.

There was a time when beach erosion wasn't a problem on Cape Canaveral — because it was so empty. The windswept promontory had once been the haunt of pirates and privateers. Just off its coast is where the last naval battle of the Revolutionary War was fought.

Not much had happened to Brevard County's beaches since then. They were difficult to reach by land, so only a handful of settlers even bothered to try. It was the emptiest stretch of beach in the country.

That meant that when World War II came along, there was plenty of undeveloped land for the military to put to use as part of the Banana River Naval Air Station. After the war, when the United States needed a location facing east over the ocean and near the equator to test fire its intercontinental ballistic missiles, Cape Canaveral seemed the ideal spot.

That's how, once Russia fired Sputnik into space, the cape came to be the place where NASA built launch pads for catching up with the USSR, orbiting the Earth and eventually going to the moon. The railroad line was part of that early construction, although it hasn't been used for years, said Nancy Bray, director of center operations for Kennedy Space Center.

The waves washing across the beaches near launch pad 39A — the site of the Apollo II launch, and recently leased to the private SpaceX — and its companion 39B convinced NASA that erosion was becoming a serious problem. The glancing blow that the Florida coast received from Hurricane Sandy in 2012 proved it beyond a doubt, said scientist Peter Adams of the University of Florida.

"It just grazed by the Atlantic coast of Florida," he said, "but it caused significant erosion and retreat."

Every month, the scientists conducted detailed GPS surveys of the beach, "documenting how much it had changed since the last month, and trying to determine how much damage had been done by a particular storm," Adams said.

They found that climate change and sea level rise were making the erosion problem worse by pushing the water higher and higher up the beach. Sea level rise is creating problems around the Florida coast — from toppling palm trees at a Levy County state park to flooding streets and backing up sewage lines in South Florida.

The question was what to do about it. Throughout most of Florida, the typical answer to beach erosion is dredging sand from underwater and using it to rebuild the shoreline, a method called beach renourishment. Thirty-five of Florida's 67 counties have used taxpayer money to artificially enhance their beaches in this way, plumping them up like a fading star injecting collagen in her too-thin lips.

But NASA decided to do things differently. Instead of building back the shoreline, the agency used beach sand from a project at nearby Patrick Air Force Base to build, over about seven months earlier this year, a second, milelong line of dunes inland from the area where the erosion was occurring. Total cost: $2.8 million.

"Renourishment would be much more expensive," Bray said. Besides, she pointed out, the rising sea would just wipe out the built-up beach all over again, requiring NASA to spend even more of the taxpayers' money.

Even better, she said, is the fact that the second dune system created habitat for several endangered and threatened species that call Cape Canaveral home. And while the workers were putting in the sand, they took out the old railroad line.

"It's thriving right now," Bray said. "We put in a lot of native plants. . . . We think we built it in the right location to last us for some time."

Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.

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