Marine Corps Considers Abandoning Parris Island Amid Rising Extreme Weather Threats

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Motivational Run on Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island
U.S. Marines with Company D., 1st Battalion, Recruit Training Regiment lead new Marines during the Motivational Run on Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, S.C., March 2, 2017. (Sarah Stegall/U.S. Marine Corps)

The Marine Corps is considering moving some of its bases to other locations, including the iconic Parris Island Training Depot, in response to the growing effects of climate change, Navy officials said.

"I'm aware that there are conversations in the Marine Corps about the possibility of moving bases right now," Meredith Berger, the assistant secretary of the Navy for Environment, Installations and Energy, told reporters on a call Monday when asked about moving the Parris Island facility.

"We are seeing some real impacts there in terms of its geography, in terms of ... impacts that we've seen in storms, water impacts," Berger explained, speaking specifically about Parris Island, before adding that "they're usually in the path of a storm there."

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A string of recent reports has predicted that Parris Island will face increasingly frequent and ferocious hurricanes, floods and extreme heat.

Those escalating temperatures are already a growing risk to trainees on the island. Between 2016 and 2020, Parris Island reported 576 cases of heat-related illnesses, according to a study released last year by the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Branch.

Berger's comments, made as part of the Navy's rollout of its "Climate Action 2030" plan, come as the Pentagon worries about the effects of climate change on the force as a whole.

When contacted by Military.com, Marine Corps spokesman Maj. Kevin Stephensen said that "both Marine Corps recruit depots face significant infrastructure challenges that negatively impact the long-term training of our future force."

"In order to address these challenges, it is only prudent to explore all options to find a solution, to include understanding the cost-benefit of a consolidated Recruit Training site," Stephensen added.

Stephensen noted that a new, consolidated base "is only one of several modernization efforts we are exploring," before adding that it is "too early to discuss or speculate further."

Established in 1915, Parris Island has trained Marine recruits for more than 100 years. As a result, the base, whose iconic motto is "We Make Marines," holds a special place in the already lore-centered Corps.

"What happens on the parade decks of Parris Island ... is what makes Marines," Gen. Carl Mundy wrote in a guide on leadership when he was commandant of the Corps in the 1990s.

This isn't the first time the future of Parris Island has been debated by Pentagon and service officials. Commandant Gen. David Berger told Military.com in 2020 that replacing the training center was possible because the South Carolina base hadn't fully integrated gender-neutral training, stoking speculation the historic training camp could close.

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, as well as nearby town and city officials, sounded the alarm on how economically devastating base closure in the area would be. Parris Island and nearby Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort provide $1.5 billion in economic activity for the state, as well as 12,000 jobs, according to a report by South Carolina's Lowcountry Council of Governments, an organization that advocates for the state's coastal communities.

But Parris Island is far from the only military installation that might need to be abandoned, or modified, because of climate change.

Last year, the Department of Defense announced a bold Climate Adaptation Plan focused on managing and navigating the costly effects of rising natural disasters and extreme weather hurting the force in recent years.

Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska was hit with disastrous flooding in 2019, Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida was hit with $3 billion worth of hurricane damage in 2018, and California military bases continue to face growing issues from repeated wildfires.

More recently, the environmental threats facing Parris Island and Beaufort were laid out in a Department of Defense-funded report published last month by the Lowcountry Council of Governments.

The findings show that increased natural disasters, high levels of rainfall and coastal erosion are serious factors facing the Marine Corps' largest training facility on the East Coast.

While military officials at Parris Island and Beaufort have been focused on small fixes such as raising roads to mitigate damage, scientists are raising the alarm about long-term issues the bases may face.

"By 2050, the currently flood-prone areas within both bases could experience tidal flooding more than 300 times annually and be underwater nearly 30 percent of the year given the highest scenario," according to a 2016 case study from the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit science advocacy organization.

South Carolina's hurricane-prone areas will continue to experience more dramatic rainfall and flooding and, by the end of the century, the Union of Concerned Scientists predicts that nearly three-quarters of the Parris Island base could be underwater from the daily tides.

The Lowcountry Council of Governments’s report states that continual projects will be necessary around Parris Island, MCAS Beaufort and the surrounding community to mitigate damage and impact from more extreme weather events and climate change.

Many of those projects will come with hefty price tags. Base leaders told the State newspaper in South Carolina last year that they have $200 million worth of improvements planned in future years.

It's hard to overstate just how central a role the facility plays to the identity of the Marine Corps.

It was Parris Island that came up with the now-infamous yellow footprints on which recruits first stand after getting off the bus. They appeared in January 1965, according to the Marine Corps history of the base. The base was also featured in Stanley Kubrick's 1987 film "Full Metal Jacket" with R. Lee Ermey playing the memorable drill instructor.

"Parris Island has the designation of being the second oldest post in the Marine Corps," a Marine history of the base boasted. "Over the past 100 years, Parris Island has made over one million new Marines and will remain steadfast in its commitment to the lowcountry and nation for the next 100 years."

Will Grimsley, secretary of South Carolina's Department of Veterans' Affairs, which also lobbies for military bases in the state, said Parris Island's famous "We Make Marines" sign should continue to ring true in the state despite the increased climate threats.

"There is a local impact, but it's broader," Grimsley said. "It's national and international. Parris Island is an iconic training facility for the Marines. ... I believe it's here for the long haul to stay, and South Carolina is proud to host them."

Editor's Note: This story and headline have been updated after a Marine Corps spokesperson provided comment following publication.

-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at konstantin.toropin@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.

-- Thomas Novelly can be reached at thomas.novelly@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @TomNovelly.

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