The greatest enemy to the Parris Island Marine Corps Recruit Depot is one it likely cannot defeat: Mother Nature.
For over a century, the low-lying island surrounded by teeming marsh and serpentine estuaries has held its ground, weathering hurricane aftermath and tidal flooding. But if scientists’ worst-case-scenario sea level rise predictions hold, three-quarters of the 8,000-acre island will be underwater before the end of this century.
Even sooner, in fewer than 15 years, water would capsize the single causeway connecting the base to the mainland, one study said.
Will sea level rise shutter the historic military staple that trains nearly 20,000 recruits a year and brings in hundreds of millions to the local economy?
Base leaders, past and present, are reluctant to say so. Some are firm in their belief that nothing will close the base, not even climate change. But some scientists say regardless of mitigation efforts, rising waters will eventually swallow Parris Island. Protecting its shorelines is just buying time.
But everyone is clear on one thing: They’re going to protect the base for as long as they can.
As it stands today, Parris Island leaders aren’t going to line the shores with seawalls, and they aren’t interested in maintaining the ones they have. They want to build reefs with bundled, recycled oyster shells — known as living shorelines — that would build back salt marsh, which is seen as the island’s first and last defense against storms, flooding and erosion.
There’s no heavy artillery in waging a war against rising seas. Parris Island wants a natural defense against a natural phenomenon.
Rob Young, a geology professor at Western Carolina University who directs its Study of Developed Shorelines program, will say what people don’t want to hear.
“That facility has a limited lifespan,” Young said. “As long as sea level continues to rise, the mission of that facility is going to have to be accomplished somewhere else. I can’t tell you whether that’s 10 years from now or 50 years from now, but it will happen.”
A slew of data support Young’s claim.
In a 2018 report, The Center for Climate & Security noted that as soon as 2035, rising sea levels could cut off the land connections between the base and mainland if not raised higher. The center is a non-partisan group of security and military experts that addresses climate change threats to security.
The report produced a map that predicts a minimum annual flood event in 2070 would wash away the Osprey Inn, the boat storage area, the Parade Deck, the 4th Battalion and Depot Headquarters.
Another scenario predicts that by 2050, flooding will inundate training ranges, parade decks and barracks several times a year.
And fewer than 80 years stand between 6.4 feet of sea level rise that would overtake three-quarters of the island’s land by 2100, according to a 2016 study of worst case scenarios by the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Other findings from the study are:
▪ By 2050, flood-prone areas on the base could experience tidal flooding more than 300 times a year and be underwater almost 30% percent during a single year.
▪ Later in the century, higher water levels caused by major tides could cover 85% of the island’s wetlands and developed areas about 10 times a year.
It’s an onslaught of alarming proportions that have triggered a response to act.
Despite startling predictions from some, Parris Island leaders are making plans to defend the depot from the water. So far, they’ve responded incrementally and with an environmentally conscious touch.
Because water was washing across the marsh-encapsulated road that was already in need of replacing, they raised it two feet. When the rifle ranges needed updates, they ensured barriers were in front of the marsh, so fewer rounds ended up in the water. When stormwater runoff pooled in the roundabout near the base’s entrance, they planted native plants to absorb the excess.
Native plants also help the island’s wildlife thrive: red tail hawks, bald eagles, osprey, waterfowl and raptors. The island is also home to alligators, loggerhead sea turtles and diamondback rattlesnakes.
“Everything we touch, we need to think about environmental resiliency for the future, and leaving and making it even better than we found,” Brig. Gen. Julie Nethercot said in April to a group during an Earth Day event on the base.
Can oyster reefs save the depot?
What lies in front of Parris Island now is a loose dream. It’s a project with a significant job: Protecting the base from imminent closure.
Oyster shells to build up the surrounding marshes may be the biggest weapon in Parris Island’s arsenals, if authorities can get the funding.
Parris Island and partner organizations — The Nature Conservancy, PEW Charitable Trusts and the Coastal Conservation League — are in the early stages of trying to secure grant money. They want a chunk of the $140 million available through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s National Coastal Resilience Fund.
In November, if they get the $1 million they’ve requested, the partners would use the money to construct more than 4,500 wire oyster reefs to cover nearly two acres in Beaufort.
Recycled oyster shells bundled in wire that would be set near the island’s shoreline to act as reefs. In time, those man-made oyster reefs would build back the salt marshes that work to slow erosion and stabilize shorelines. It’s a natural solution that preserves the island’s ecology. The oyster shells can filter upland runoff and act as habitats for local critters, birds and fish.
Loose and bagged oyster shells would cover another 1.3 acres. The reefs and the oyster shells are expected build up the marsh and other habitats, which would protect about 380 acres overall, according to the project’s pre-proposal.
Volunteers would lay reefs along Beaufort County waterways — on the Beaufort River ( Intracoastal Waterway), Battery Creek and Archers Creek, which would work to protect Parris Island, Naval Hospital Beaufort, Fort Frederick Cultural Reserve, and U.S. Highway 21.
Salt marshes are vital, environmentalists say. They absorb more carbon from the atmosphere than they release, acting as a set of brakes to global warming.
“( Parris Island) is already seeing the impacts of climate change here,” said Rachel Hawes, the Coastal Conservation League’s land, water and wildlife project manager. “They have localized flooding constantly, they have increased storm wake, they have erosion.”
The league works to protect and conserve South Carolina’s environment, and it’s encouraged that Parris Island is seeking natural solutions.
Flooding on Parris Island has prompted earlier projects like raising a road and placing native plants where stormwater runoff collects to absorb it.
Increased marsh grass would provide a buffer to wave energy, slowing it before the water reaches the shore, which decreases flooding and erosion. A side benefit would be an enhanced habitat for the island’s ecosystem, Hawes said.
“Building oyster (reefs) in the salt marsh is not necessarily going to single handedly stop climate change,” Hawes said. “The way to look at it is that in some areas it would (protect the base from sea level rise) and in some other areas it might just postpone or delay the inevitable.”
Low-lying spots, like the causeway connecting the base to the mainland, are vulnerable to flooding with heavy rainfall. Setting an oyster reef along U.S. Highway 21, which exits onto the causeway, would help protect it from rising waters, said Lora Clarke, a science and policy officer for The Pew Charitable Trusts’ conserving marine life in the United States project.
“The benefit of using oyster reef is that you don’t have to repair them,” Clarke said. “They’re pretty viable and they hold up during storms. So that’s proven to be a pretty successful tool to help protect these areas.”
While Young says living shorelines are a reasonable solution, he doesn’t think they will save the depot.
“I think it’s giving them time to temporarily stabilize the shoreline in a way that’s ecologically sensitive so that they can plan the next step,” he said.
Building up defenses naturally isn’t unique to Parris Island.
Other military installations across the southeast are waging similar wars with flooding, erosion and sea level rise. A year ago, regional government and military officials launched an initiative to conserve salt marshes in Southeast communities and military installations.
The project will “aid in the creation of essential fish and bird habitat and provide other ecosystem services, such as stabilizing salt marsh shoreline, buffering wave and wind energy that results in shallow water flooding, and enhancing water filtration,” the pre-proposal reads.
By the end of May, the partners will learn whether they can submit a full proposal. However, it’s stiff competition with organizations across the United States, Hawes said, but it doesn’t stop her from being encouraged by the base’s natural approach.
Sea walls off the table
Parris Island isn’t an enemy of sea walls.
Not far from where recruits used to ferry into the Cowen Creek entrance of Parris Island before the causeway was built north of it, there’s a row of two-story clapboard houses. The officers live there. Nearby are national historic landmarks — the commanding general’s home and a pavilion.
Officer housing faces the sparkling creek that, at afternoon high tide, had churning waves. Visible from the street is an old cement sea wall.
Truax points to it, what he calls a retaining wall.
“It’s been there for decades,” he said. “It’s stood the test of time.”
Sea walls are a shield to strong wave activity that can mitigate flooding and act as a long-term fix. However they can negatively affect marshes, interrupting the natural flow of sand and sediment and multiplying wave force onto nearby shoreline, according to an article on The Pew Charitable Trusts’ website. They can require routine maintenance and also disturb natural habitats, Clarke said.
And, in Parris Island’s case, additional sea walls wouldn’t work, Young said.
“The biggest problem that Parris Island faces is that the water is coming up underneath it, so you can put some sea walls in there, but it’s not going to protect it from sea level rise,” he said.
But, over a month ago, during a climate resiliency conference directly tied to Parris Island, a retired base commander was adamant a sea wall was necessary.
Retired Marine Brig. Gen. Stephen Cheney, the Parris Island base commander between 1999 and 2001, said in March that installing an additional sea wall where the island is most vulnerable to flooding is vital to combating future sea level rise. He predicted the cost would be in the millions.
Not moving on the issue on the issue of combating rising seas is a matter of national security, Cheney and U.S. Rep. Nancy Mace, R- S.C., said at a March climate and resiliency event. If climate-battered facilities were forced to close on the island, recruit training would be interrupted and preparedness slowed, they said.
But current Parris Island officials don’t want sea walls.
Communications Officer Maj. Philip Kulczewski confirmed the island “has no current plans to build or reinforce any sea walls on the Depot,” because “seawalls can have effects and impacts on the surrounding local community.” It wants a natural solution to infrastructure woes.
For Maj. Marc Blair, who runs the depot’s environmental division, just like serving his country, it’s his duty to protect Parris Island from the ocean. He thinks beyond the human footprint — the thousands of acres of marsh, birds, alligators, diamondback rattlesnakes and bald eagles.
“We could build sea walls tomorrow, but what are we willing to sacrifice?” Blair said.
Calm before the storm
While catastrophic sea level rise could put integral parts of Parris Island under water in fewer than 15 years, its leaders aren’t raising the white flag.
“We do not see crisis here, we see opportunity,” Col. William Truax, director of installations and logistics, said about the base’s projects that have addressed rising seas and energy efficiency.
“There is nothing we can point to and say, ‘This is a bad result of climate change,’” he said. “The speculation is that higher water is going to be a problem, so we say, ‘OK, if that is going to be a problem what can we do to mitigate that and not act like it’s a crisis that we haven’t seen any evidence for.’”
The depot’s environmental division wants more finite data on the island’s tidal patterns. Currently, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s tide prediction data come from gauges set around Beaufort. Hyper-local gauges on the island would help better tell its specific tidal patterns and predicted sea level rise, Blair said.
However, the Department of Defense isn’t treading lightly, and its report on climate change’s impending impact on Parris Island is stark. A 2021 Climate Adaptation Plan from the Department of Defense uses the words “climate change” over 100 times. The 32-page, agency-wide plan looks to “accelerate adaptations” to the bases’ infrastructure and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
“Extreme weather events are already costing the Department billions of dollars and are degrading mission capabilities,” the Department of Defense report reads, adding that climate change’s effects will be “even more consequential” for U.S. military installations if not addressed.
Parris Island didn’t go without mention.
A 2021 Climate Change Adaptation and Resilience assessment (CCAR) of the island adjusted its master plan projects, including responding to “sea level rise and effects of climate change.” It included, among other updates, stormwater system upgrades, battalion training facilities elevation, upgraded roads and reforestation.
A handful of Parris Island’s infrastructure upgrades are directly related to what the Union of Concerned Scientists with a national nonprofit project are predicting to be a near-leveling of the base by 2100, all because of sea level rise.
Despite the CCAR assessment, leaders are calling for more finite data because of “data gaps,” Blair said, adding that hyper-local tidal gauges and additional studies will help to fill those gaps.
“A very small scale study during the CCAR found that in reality our local sea level conditions may be in fact higher than the NOAA data,” he wrote in an email.
Their studies and efforts come down to one thing, what Blair calls “climate change uncertainty.”