Seaports need a plan for weathering climate change, say Stanford researchers

A warming planet means rising oceans, but seaports are not prepared for the expensive construction they will need to protect themselves, according to a global survey of ports conducted by Stanford researchers. But the researchers have created a computer model that will help ports with their planning.

 
More than 80 percent of the world's freight moves by ship. Despite their crucial role in the global economy, few seaports are preparing for the impacts of climate change, including rising sea levels and more frequent storms. (Photo: Port of Los Angeles)

The majority of seaports around the world are unprepared for the potentially damaging impacts of climate change in the coming century, according to a new Stanford University study.

In a survey posed to port authorities around the world, the Stanford team found that most officials are unsure how best to protect their facilities from rising sea levels and more frequent Katrina-magnitude storms, which scientists say could be a consequence of global warming. Results from the survey are published in the journal Climatic Change.

"Part of the problem is that science says that by 2100, we'll experience anywhere from 1.5 to 6 feet of sea level rise," said the study's lead author, Austin Becker, a graduate student at Stanford. "That's a huge range."

Port authorities, like many government agencies and private companies, have to make tough financial decisions when it comes to funding infrastructure, he said. They need accurate information from scientists about what to expect, so that they can plan accordingly. Building a structure to withstand a 6-foot sea level rise would cost much more than trying to accommodate a 1.5-foot rise, said Becker, a doctoral candidate in the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources at Stanford.

In 2009, Becker distributed 160 surveys to members of the International Association of Ports and Harbors and the American Association of Port Authorities – the first worldwide survey of port authorities to address climate change adaptation. A total of 93 agencies representing major seaports on every continent, except Antarctica, responded.