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How rising sea levels can impact port resiliency—and your morning coffee

April 07, 2021

A practical approach to climate change is essential as ports protect their long-term viability

If you had a cup of coffee today, you likely depended on a ship. Why? Because the beans that went into making your coffee probably didn’t come from the US. While Puerto Rico, California, and Hawaii grow coffee beans, most of our coffee comes from Brazil, Vietnam, Colombia, and African nations. We depend upon ports and global trade for the things we use and consume every day, as well as to sell our goods abroad. Ports are crucial for the national and local economy.

We depend on ports for imports and exports, including everything from raw materials and industrial supplies to consumer goods and produce. Ports significantly contribute to the economy, especially in local communities where they serve as major sources of employment. Ports also provide employment in related sectors, such as trucking and rail transportation.

Shipping is expanding, too. Ports are growing on both coasts and container ships that carry most of our cargo are getting bigger and handling more containers than ever.

Halterm Container Terminal, Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Rising steadily

Meanwhile, the water is rising. Most of the observed sea level rise is from the meltwater of land-based ice sheets and mountain glaciers, which adds to the ocean’s volume, and from the ocean water’s expansion as it warms. Recently, scientists have detected accelerations in losses of ice sheet mass and sea level rise, which is expected with global warming. As ports, many of which are aging, look to expand and keep pace with advancing technology, they must also account for sea level rise.

Current industry standard practice predicts sea level rise of 5 millimeters a year; the global mean for the annual sea level rise since 2014. Doesn’t sound like much. But over 30 years, that’s a rise of about 6 inches. If ports that were built 20 or 30 years ago don’t respond to rising seas, eventually their electrical and mechanical systems and equipment will flood and fail, becoming unusable. The same goes for their roadways, structures, and security systems.

Time to sound the alarm?

As alarming as sea level rise sounds and as problematic as it can be for ports, shall we raise our port infrastructure now? And shall it be all at once?

Fortunately, no.

It is unlikely ports will choose to completely revamp for an emergency that’s years away as that would be extraordinarily expensive and disruptive to their operations. Not only are ports unable to afford to rebuild all their infrastructure and facilities, but ports must also fulfill their contracts with tenants and shipping lines. Sea level rise is a distant issue for most. Alarmism about sea level rise, which suggests that immediate action is the only option, tends to be ineffective.

Fairview Cove Container Terminal, Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Operational levels

There are many ports that have suggested addressing all issues regarding sea level rise now and not later. They would like to raise all potentially threatened infrastructure above the point of predicted sea level rise so they can eliminate this risk. Unfortunately, that’s not feasible from both cost and operational standpoints. Ports also need to continue to operate, to load and unload ships, and they need to maintain deck levels that make this possible. Raising their decks above operational levels means added complexity and additional equipment for ports.

For ports to address sea level rise, they need to see it as a regular aspect of continued maintenance and long-term resiliency. They need to see the investment in adjustments to sea level rise as an ongoing process to protect the long-term viability of their operations. 

There’s rarely a “one and done” option when it comes to addressing sea level rise at ports. It will continue to be an issue, science says, throughout our lifetime.

Life-cycle assessments

Sea level rise needs to be a part of the matrix we use in our life-cycle assessment for ports. We can incorporate sea level rise in the life cycle predictions for port equipment and facilities. That way, we can replace, relocate, and accommodate for sea level rise in the natural course of replacing equipment and facilities near end of life—saving money and avoiding redundancy.

Phased renovations

Ports must remain open for business. We must make it possible for ports to plan and update for sea level rise on a schedule that suits their operations and budget. This may mean we address issues related to sea level rise just as we would for failing or out-of-date port infrastructure. We can raise, relocate, or replace port infrastructure as part of a phased renovation with minimal disruption.

As we said, we plan new infrastructure at ports to last for decades, but we can’t raise decks to an elevation that they become unusable. Logically, we will have to tackle sea level rise in stages, perhaps once per decade, balancing the individual port’s continued operations, capital improvement plan, and the efficient use of funds allocated to sustainability and the threat of rising seas.

There’s rarely a “one and done” option when it comes to addressing sea level rise at ports. It will continue to be an issue, science says, throughout our lifetime. Thus, ports should see making periodic adjustments and improvements to accommodate rising water as a cost of doing business.

Paul J. Conley Container Terminal, Boston, Massachusetts.

Resiliency and flexibility

Designing ports so that they can make periodic upgrades and adjustments to accommodate sea level rise is just one significant aspect of an adaptive approach to port infrastructure. Port infrastructure and associated facilities must be resilient and adaptive in a world where extreme weather events and rising seas are facts of life.

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