• December 7, 2021

NASA Is Preparing for the Ravages of Climate Change

While NASA would only move buildings or launch complexes as a very expensive last resort, the agency is working more on “structural hardening,” making buildings better able to withstand extreme weather or a loss of electricity, so that they can temporarily operate off the grid. “It can mean raising the elevation, adding pumping capacity, and putting up barriers. It can be about creating islands. It can be about creating autonomous infrastructure systems, like self-sufficient energy generation, as well as redundancies,” says Jesse Keenan, a social scientist at Tulane University with expertise on climate change adaptation and the built environment. (Keenan is unaffiliated with NASA’s report.)

NASA’s ongoing efforts also include building up off-coast dunes to act as buffers against incoming storms, and stabilizing shorelines to protect against massive waves and storm surges that can accelerate erosion around coastal infrastructure. 

According to the climate plan, any new infrastructure has to be sited above a 500-year floodplain, so those buildings won’t need such fortification for a long while. NASA also aims to develop redundancies, when possible, so that a critical mission doesn’t depend on a piece of equipment housed at a single vulnerable facility, for example.

Part of NASA’s plan involves working toward reducing carbon emissions, not just adapting to a world with more dangerous weather. Specifically, one piece of the plan focuses on “green aviation,” or making airplane flights more sustainable by designing more efficient engines, batteries, and fuels, such as a blend of biofuels with traditional (but highly polluting) jet fuel. NASA is also researching and investing in electrified aircraft propulsion systems that don’t need to rely on liquid fuel. “Some people forget that the first A in ‘NASA’ is ‘Aeronautics,’” Schmidt says.

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While such research is important, airplane flights aren’t the biggest part of the United States’ carbon budget. “Airline travel gets outsized attention in these conversations given its very modest (roughly 2 percent) contribution to total carbon emissions,” writes Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Penn State and author of The New Climate War, in an email to WIRED. He supports these efforts but recommends that the government focus more on cutting carbon emissions from energy production and ground transportation. “The most important action that NASA can continue to take is to educate our public and policymakers on the gravity of the climate crisis and the urgency of transitioning away from fossil fuels toward clean energy,” Mann writes.

Indeed, education is also a component of the plan. NASA’s past educational efforts have often been directed toward scientists and the general public. But now the agency will also have an audience of decisionmakers as it rolls out a variety of trainings, so that NASA’s senior managers and others in the federal government can make better, climate-informed decisions about missions and budgets, Schmidt says.

To announce these and other new climate initiatives and to signal their high priority, NASA administrator Bill Nelson is visiting several agency facilities this week. On Tuesday at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, Nelson described the agency’s work on drones and communication systems designed for quickly responding to wildfires, and researchers demonstrated a new technology for airports that would cut taxi delays and congestion on runways, reducing carbon emissions. On Wednesday, Nelson will tour NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center north of Los Angeles, which hosts the experimental all-electric X-57 aircraft. 

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