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Nine in 10 major ports exposed to climatic and geophysical risks: University of Oxford research

New study from the University of Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute (ECI) shows that 86% of all ports worldwide are exposed to more than three types of climatic and geophysical hazards, resulting in escalating economic impacts on global trade.

Ports are usually located in hazard-prone areas along the coast and close to rivers - exposed to storms and floods – and will have to cope with sea level rise and more severe storms because of climate change, and this could cause physical damages to port infrastructure, and disrupt port operations - with far-reaching consequences, noted the British university.

We find representative cases of how significant problems could be caused by extreme weather conditions in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina shut down three ports in the United States, and in 2011, when Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami damaged maritime assets worth US$12 billion.

In the study, published in Communications Earth and Environment, ECI researchers provide a detailed picture of climate risks for 1,340 of the most important ports globally. The new research combines a new geospatial database of port infrastructure assets with the most detailed available information on natural hazards, including earthquakes, cyclones and flooding, as well as localised information on “marine extremes”, such as wind speeds, waves, temperature and overtopping.

"Extreme conditions at sea are expected to cause operational disruptions to around 40% of ports globally. What’s more, ports are exposed to other hazards including river flooding and earthquakes so port designers and operators have to take multiple hazards into consideration. That’s not always happening at the moment," pointed out Jasper Verschuur, ECI researcher.

He went on to explain, "For instance, the foundations of quay walls need careful consideration when exposed to earthquakes, the orientation and design of breakwaters when exposed to extreme waves and surges, and the drainage system when exposed to fluvial and pluvial flooding. If that doesn’t happen, we could see major disruptions to global trade and supply chains."

The largest climate risks are faced by large ports in Asia, the Gulf of Mexico and Western Europe. However, despite the absolute risk being particularly large in high-income countries, the impacts could be greatest in middle-income countries’ ports, shows the study.

The climate risk totals US$7.6 billion per year, most of which is attributed to tropical cyclones and river flooding of ports. This number is more than half as large as a previous estimate of the climate risk of road and rail infrastructure on a global scale, illustrating that, although ports only encompass relatively small areas, the high value and density of assets can contribute to the climate risk on a national and global scale.

"On top of the physical damages, port downtime associated with these natural hazards puts trade worth US$67 billion at-risk every year, which could result in costly delays, revenue losses, and impacts to the wider economy," highlighted Verschuur.

The university's study said that large ports in upper-middle and high-income countries need to make sizeable investments to manage their risk in light of increasing climate change, which could become prohibitively expensive.

On the other hand, infrastructure upgrades are needed to protect small ports in low-income countries from hazard impacts and frequent disruptions, which can have systemic impacts on the economies they serve. At these ports, the impacts of climate change on economic activity can be reduced by improvements to infrastructure to make them more disaster-resilient and ensure year-round operations.

Jasper Verschuur concluded, "Luckily, initiatives are ongoing to upgrade outdated and inefficient port infrastructure at many ports. However, these efforts fall short given the expected climate change challenges ports will face over the next few decades. Our paper allows organisations to prioritise global investments to adapt ports, as well as help identify the most suitable interventions."

He added that the study shows the adaptation of ports is "urgently needed" and the quantified risk analysis can help in prioritising investments and help make the business case to accelerate adaptation finance.

Antonis Karamalegkos
Managing Editor

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