Surface water flooding, not sea level rise the main vulnerability for many ports

Surface water flooding, not sea level rise the main vulnerability for many ports

By Jim Hight

Editor’s note: This post was adapted from an article that first appeared in the Climate Change Business Journal.

Many seaports will have to invest significant resources to assess their climate-related vulnerabilities and develop adaptation strategies in the coming decades. But the sheer variety of port settings and configurations means that this common challenge will require individually tailored solutions.

“Every port is different,” said Heather Wood, Ports Market Sector leader for environmental consulting and engineering firm Kennedy Jenks. “They all do the same things, but they’re located in very different places, with different climates, different environmental concerns.”

“Some are smack in the middle of communities that have grown around them while some are in industrial areas with few neighbors,” said Wood. “Some are inland, some are close to the ocean. Some have issues with subsidence like New Orleans and Hampton Roads.”

A port’s most obvious vulnerability would at first glance appear to be sea level rise (SLR). But while SLR and the associated higher storm surges have the potential to overtop wharves and piers, reduce the clearance between ships and bridges and create other impacts—flooding from more intense precipitation is a greater threat to many ports.

“Ports are already prepared for hurricanes and northeasters, and they know when they have to shut down,” said Wood. “It’s the localized flooding that can occur in the middle of operations that could short out a system and disable their increasingly automated systems of sensors, cameras and wireless infrastructure.”

In a study of climate change vulnerabilities for the Port of Manzanillo—Mexico’s largest and fastest growing container port—Acclimatise and Worley Parsons Advisian identified surface water flooding as a more significant near-term problem than SLR. Like many ports, it sits at the bottom of a catchment basin where it receives runoff from the surrounding city. Soil erosion combined with garbage collecting in the drainage system are “already causing disruptions that are likely to increase with very heavy rainfall events associated with climate change,” said Richenda Connell, CTO of Acclimatise.

Without new measures to mitigate flooding, disruptions at Manzanillo from more intense precipitation could double by 2050, leading to higher maintenance costs and more downtime. As part of their report, the consultants provided a cost-benefit analysis of adaptation actions (see chart) to give port authorities and private terminal operators a menu of their options.

SLR figures into long-term planning

Of course, sea level rise must be factored into ports’ long-term planning. “What I see routinely is that when ports are planning for new infrastructure, most are taking climate change into consideration,” said Doug Daugherty, managing principal of technical and scientific consultancy Ramboll Environ. “Where potential issues come up is for the existing infrastructure.”

Some studies over the last 10 years illustrate the potentially enormous scale of the SLR challenge. A 2008 OECD study on vulnerable port cities by R. Nicholls and a 2011 article in Climatic Change by Nicholls and colleagues ranked the top 20 port cities for climate vulnerability.

Heavily populated, low-lying deltaic cities in South Asia rank at the top for vulnerability, with 37 million people expected to be exposed by 2070 in Kolkata, Mumbai and Dhaka. The top three in exposed asset value: Miami, Guangzhou and New York-Newark, where over $9 trillion in property will be at risk in 2070.

In December 2015, four Stanford University Civil and Environmental Engineering professors published a “Thought Exercise” to estimate the cost of elevating all U.S. ports to a new height based on regional 2070 projections for sea level rise and storm surge. Their estimates: $66 billion to $88 billion, plus 495 million cubic meters of fill, which would cost an estimated $30 billion for dredging, dozing and compaction. And those estimates excluded the costs of adapting buildings and infrastructure.

As the projections from Nicholls et al make clear, ports aren’t stand-alone infrastructure but gateways to cities, regions and countries. And port planning for climate change must be integrated with regional planning, especially for transportation. “Ports can’t function without the rails, trucks and the larger transport network to move freight and the workforce.,” said Wood. “While ports can plan for sea level rise, it’s imperative that other transporation modes do the same.”

Changing projections

Like all coastal governments and property owners, ports face great uncertainty in terms of how quickly sea levels will rise. For SLR projections in its 2011 MasterPlan 2035, the Port of Miami used estimates from the Climate Change Advisory Task Force established by the Miami-Dade Board of County Commissioners, which in 2008 predicted a 1.5 foot rise by 2060. But Miami-Dade and other South Florida counties later updated these projections, estimating 2060 sea levels at 11 to 22 inches higher, 28 to 57 inches by 2100.

“The projections keep changing,” said Daugherty, noting recent scientific papers examining whether the Antarctic ice sheet is melting faster than currently predicted. “Other scientists are looking at the possibilities that when we get to certain higher temperature ranges we might lose the Antarctic and Greenland ice, which would put us geologically in similar conditions as a past interglacial period with its corresponding much higher sea levels than what is currently projected.”

So, what triggers a port owner to take climate change adaptation seriously and invest the relatively small sums needed for a climate vulnerability assessment?

Ramboll Environ has performed such assessments for California ports in the context of environmental impact reports (EIRs) prepared for port planning and capital projects. Although the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) does not require an analysis of the environment’s impact on a proposed project—an interpretation upheld by the state Supreme Court in December 2015—many local governments, including port authorities, choose to include an analysis of climate change impacts in their EIRs.

In developing countries, port climate change risks assessments are generally funded by multilateral development banks—and MDBs’ funding is typically triggered by contemplated investments in port expansions or upgrades, according to Connell, whose firm also also worked on a climate adaptation study for the Muelles del Bosque port in Cartagena, Colombia.

The Manzanillo project was funded by the InterAmerican Development Bank (IDB), and the Cartagena project by the International Finance Corporation (IFC).

IDB and other MDBs like the World Bank and IFC “work very hard to use the lessons from these types of studies to spread the word more broadly through their communities,” said Connell. Connell expects port authorities and private terminal operators to eventually become more active in funding such studies in developing countries’ ports, especially those that are expanding.

Ports and large port users have also funded adaptation measures that benefit an entire community. As noted in The Business Case for Responsible Corporate Adaptation published by UNEP, CDP and others in 2015, Brazilian mining firm Vale invested $18.6 million in the Capixaba Hydrometeorological Monitoring Center in partnership with the Government of Espírito Santo. The sophisticated weather forecasting helps Vale and the community be more alert for extreme weather events.

Image: Costs & Benefits of Adaptation Measures, Port of Manzanillo. Source: Accliamtise, Worley Parsons Advisian.

A rapidly changing industry

Planning for climate change impacts, where it occurs, is taking place within an industry that is investing heavily in upgrading channels and infrastructure to accommodate super-sized “post-Panamax” container ships (so named because the Panama Canal is being upgraded to accommodate them).

Ports are competing to become Post-Panamax Ready. According to Panorama, the magazine of Colombian airline Copa, East Coast ports are dredging harbors and raising bridges to become PPR with the expectation that they’ll take market share from West Coast ports.

The Port of New York and New Jersey is investing $1.3 billion to raise the roadbed of the Bayonne Bridge that spans the Kill Van Kull strait between Staten Island and Bayonne, N.J., by 64 feet

With their port clients engaged in such large and fast-paced capital programs, it’s difficult for climate change consultants to get a seat at the table. According to Connell, the key is raising awareness within the ports and shipping industries.

“It’s like anything in the world of climate change adaptation,” said Connell. “The first step is building this broad-based awareness of whether it’s an issue. For ports, the role of organization like PIANC [World Association for Waterborne Transport Infrastructure] in raising awareness is essential to get that first step in place.”

Acclimatise, Ramboll Environ and other firms are supporting PIANC to develop guidance on adaptation. Daugherty is serving as principal U.S. representative to PIANC’s permanent task group on climate change.

Connell says she and her colleagues view such work with industry associations as important for business development and for advancing the practice of climate change adaptation.

“We see that assisting industry associations as they seek to mobilize their members is a very important step in getting as broad a community of stakeholders as possible enlightened,” said Connell. “Acclimatise has also supported oil and gas industry associations in a similar vein.”


Jim Hight is Senior Editor of the Climate Change Business Journal. He has served as a Contributing Editor for both Environmental Business Journal and Nutrition Business Journal and as a Research Analyst for Environmental Business International since 1999. He has written extensively about finance, marketing and regulatory affairs in the environmental and nutrition industries. Jim has consulted since 1983 for a wide range of private companies, public agencies and nonprofit organizations.

Cover photo by Andy Liang (CC BY 2.0)

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