Must ports become forts? How marine goods transport can tackle the challenge of climate change


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The mobility of goods is dependent on marine goods transport: depending on whether you measure by tonnage or value, between 50-80% of all goods transport is carried by ocean-going container ships. Seaports worldwide are the crucial link in the global supply chain, connecting seagoing cargo vessels with their terrestrial destinations.

Climate change causes sea level rise (SLR) due to melting ice sheets and the expansion of sea water as it warms. Climate change also means storm surges, stronger tides, high speed winds, more frequent and intense tropical storms, and extreme weather of every type.

Although modern container ships have many tools to mitigate the dangers posed by severe weather, ports do not. They are invariably on the coast, and their quays are at or very near sea level, with millions of dollars of infrastructure locked in place.  Some experts believe that many if not most of the world’s major ports will be damaged in the next century unless their current facilities are upgraded or armoured in some way.

However this task is accomplished, it looks to be complicated, slow, and very expensive.


What to do

Researchers at Stanford recently took a in-depth look at this problem.The SUPERSLR (Stanford University Policy and Engineering Responses to Sea Level Rise) report came up with some alarming facts, as well as possible paths forward.

180 seaports account for approximately two-thirds of shipping traffic worldwide. The Stanford report estimates that protecting them against a 1-meter sea level rise would require the services of every coastal engineer in the world, working in unison for at least a decade. Such a project could conceivably need all the concrete and steel produced worldwide in a given year, and several years worth of sand and gravel. It’s theoretically doable, but difficult.

Protective measures would include massive dredging projects, and building up the height of offshore sea walls and other waterfront installations, or even the quays of the port itself. Reinforcing infrastructure like loading cranes and gantries against extreme winds and temperatures is also being considered, although it may be more economical to simply suspend operations during severe storms.


Potential pitfalls

Time-frame, money, demographic movements and politics all need to collaborate in order to solve this issue. Here’s why:


  • Lack of political will. Certain governments continue to deny the gravity or even the existence of climate change, and thus cannot be counted on to commit the necessary resources to the problem. Yet there is ongoing evidence of the growing cost of emergency response, clean-up, and rebuilding after climate-caused disasters. For example, New Orleans Army Corps of Engineers saved $100 million on shorter than planned steel sheeting to secure the levees, a decision that cost thousands of lives and $120 billion forty years later.
  • Planning asymmetries. Port authorities’ financial plans normally have a 5-10 year horizon, whereas engineering projects of this scale often require decades to complete, and are meant to serve for 50-100 years. These widely differing planning horizons make it difficult to design effective solutions for the operational lifespan of these ports.
  • Budget constraints. Given the immense cost of protecting ports, authorities are more likely to underestimate the danger in order to save money on construction. For example, when announcing its plan to double the size of the Roberts Bank Superport, the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority projected a sea level rise of 50 cm by 2100. But simulations ordered by the Globe and Mail newspaper and conducted by the Fraser Basin Council indicate that if the new facility was hit by a one-in-500-year storm, the impact would be severe. And a projected 1-meter sea level rise would leave most of the port underwater. Many experts agree that a 1-meter SLR by 2100 is well within the limits of the possible.
  • Jurisdiction. A suitably armoured seaport cannot fulfill its purpose if the surrounding territory suffers climate change-related damage. Flooding or erosion could cause the destruction of critical terrestrial transport infrastructure. The neighbouring urban centre might suffer a climate-change related economic collapse, or population exodus. To be truly effective, port protection strategies need to be integrated into an overall plan for mitigating the effects of climate change on an entire region.


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What else?

So let’s say we build those seawalls, and protect our ports. There’s still plenty to do in harm reduction, and in attacking the root cause. Here’s a short list.


1. Move less stuff

Almost half of all marine cargo is fossil fuel. If we succeed with decarbonization, not only do we minimize future climate change, we reduce the amount of goods needing to be shipped.

2. Connect business and politics

Cities, countries and companies all need to combine efforts to mount a watertight defense.  Enhanced inter-agency cooperation, technological innovation and data sharing, AI application in improved weather forecasting, and more. Individual players acting alone will not solve this problem.

3. Close the Loop

Decrease the amount of “non-essential” import/export, and incentivize domestic (and local) production, reuse, and recycling of resources. Make this challenge a flagship  example for circular economy principles.


But there’s some good news. Unlike the greenhouse effect, nuclear waste, or ocean clean-up, this is a problem we actually know how to solve. The technology is mature, well-understood, and already applied in the Netherlands, for example. There is a deep and diverse pool of engineering know-how to draw upon. And let’s not forget that building safe, efficient ports is something humanity has been doing for thousands of years. But success depends on many actors working together, for the long term, starting now.