Rising Seas Are the Next Crisis for the World’s Ports

In the years ahead, sea level rise, more intense storm surge and jacked-up tropical storms will be visiting many of the world’s roughly 3,800 ports. Most of those ports are coastal; roughly a third are located in a tropical band vulnerable to the most powerful effects of climate change. “If sea levels rise and storms become stronger as expected in the future due to climate change, the magnitude and costs of these disruptions are expected to grow,” states a report from the Environmental Defense Fund.

“Ports, working waterfronts and coastal infrastructure more generally have a lot of pressures on them from a number of sides,” said Austin Becker, chair of the department of marine affairs at the University of Rhode Island. “They’re located in highly sensitive environments that are often in estuaries where riverine systems meet the ocean. They’re there because that was a nice way to get cargo from one country to another, and then get it inland through a riverine system.”

Because ports were early tenants of waterfront cities, there is no place to which they can easily retreat from rising seas. As Becker told me, cities grew up around the ports. And then the cities pushed the ports further toward the sea.

As cities have enveloped ports, so have the transportation networks that enable goods to travel from the sea inland. “They need all these other infrastructure connections that have grown around them over the years — rail systems and highway systems and pipelines and that kind of thing,” Becker said. In most prosperous, or even middling, cities, the land necessary for such systems is long spoken for. As a result, most train tracks, roadways, warehouses and other infrastructure adjacent to ports will not be moved to higher ground away from the water.

Sea level rise will not be consistent across the globe. But according to US government projections, if the world significantly reduces greenhouse gas emissions, there may be about 600mm (two feet) of rise by 2100. If it doesn’t, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration notes, average sea level rise for the contiguous US could be more than 2 metres (seven feet). Ports, like other coastal real estate and infrastructure, are very much in the flood zone.

For the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Hurricane Sandy in 2012 was a focusing event. Sandy shut down most of the port for a week, which resulted in 25,000 shipping containers being diverted to other ports. Waterways had to be surveyed and cleared. Some cargo terminals and maritime support facilities were out of commission longer, due to power failures and damaged equipment. Oil terminals, for example, couldn’t offload product from tankers because they lacked power. Damages to port authority operations, which include commuter rail, reached an astonishing $2.2 billion.