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Addressing Climate Change in Ports

A recent report highlighted that 86% of respondents¹ agreed that the port community needs to better understand how to address climate change risk issues

14 April 2015

Coastal Infrastructure

Addressing Climate Change in Ports

However, this awareness and understanding can be difficult and costly to obtain, unless the port has participated in a local or regional climate change vulnerability assessment or, has had to consider future climate change as part of proposed expansion plans.  The simple fact that many impacts are not yet readily visible or evident at a local scale is also diminishing the lack of urgency to respond.  

Greg Fisk, National Practice Leader, Environment at BMT believes the key to effective adaptation is ports starting to consider and plan for climate change issues and vulnerabilities sooner rather than later before significant impacts (and the costs to rectify them) occur.   However, climate change adaptation is a complex issue and even the most proactive organisations struggle with the uncertainty posed by future climate change and the development and timing of appropriate actions. Greg highlights a pragmatic and cost effective solution that can be implemented, starting with the identification of key vulnerabilities, incorporation of climate change into long term decision making and setting trigger points for future action that can be monitored over time. 


While ports are the cornerstone of international trade and globalisation, they are also increasingly at risk of climate change threats such as rising sea levels, intense storms including hurricanes and cyclones and higher temperatures.  Adapting to changes in water levels is constrained by not only a lack of appropriate or endorsed engineering standards for maritime infrastructure, but also uncertainty in the rate of sea level rise and the practicalities of replacing or updating the infrastructure design.  Significant long term increases in water levels may also cause navigational constraints with respect to overhead clearance such as bridges. 

Wind, more powerful waves and higher storm surges, especially when coupled with rising sea levels are also key threats to port infrastructure, security and operational efficiency.  Damage to infrastructure from erosion and storm surge inundation is costly to replace and maintain, particularly where existing coastal defence structures are old and no longer fit for purpose.  More and longer delays to shipping caused by more frequent and larger storm events may also gradually have an impact on the reliability of marine shipping.  Siltation rates are likely to increase with increased storm activity leading to the need for additional maintenance dredging and associated management of dredge spoil. 

Furthermore, threats related to higher temperatures are similar to that of other transport infrastructure in the context of thermal impact to paved surfaces and load bearing equipment, as well as the increased possibility of heat related illnesses amongst staff. 

The potential and severity of these threats to directly impact will vary from port to port and will depend on how much and how quickly climate changes and what steps are being taken to reduce vulnerabilities and increase resilience.


There are two main policy responses to climate change – mitigation and adaptation.  Mitigation addresses the root causes, by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, whilst adaptation seeks to lower the risks posed by the consequences of climate changes.   While there are a number of initiatives by ports and more broadly by the shipping industry to control or reduce carbon emissions, adaptation by ports to climate change is still a new issue in many jurisdictions.   This however, has not precluded several nations from starting to regulate the consideration of climate change in infrastructure planning, most notably in the United Kingdom where major infrastructure, including ports are required to undertake a risk assessment and adaptation plan under the UK Climate Change Act 2008. 

Even in the absence of a clear regulatory requirement, many ports worldwide are attempting to respond to climate change impacts by developing specific policies and strategies and identifying associated risks and hazards.  However, this adaptation response can be highly constrained by short term economic pressures and the uncertainty inherent in climate predictions.  The simple fact remains – many impacts are not yet readily visible or evident at a local scale.  However, the occurrence of recent extreme events such as Hurricane Katrina and Cyclone Yasi are quickly pushing this issue higher up local authorities’ agendas in order to consider how ports in these regions will cope when such extreme events are occurring more frequently in the future. 

The Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology University’s (RMIT) March 2013 report entitled ‘Enhancing the resilience of seaports to a changing climate’ which was produced through funding from the National Climate Change Adaption Research Facility, further highlighted the need for ports to be fortified against the effects of climate change.  Examining ports in Sydney, Port Kembla and Gladstone, the report identified the overall vulnerability of key assets at each port to climate change but noted that different climate variables - tropical cyclones (Gladstone), high wind speeds (Port Kembla), and storm surge and tides (Sydney), were perceived as the most important across the three ports and as a result will likely drive different adaptation responses.

This leads to the invariable question: what are the most appropriate actions a port should be taking now to deal with climate change?  The RMIT University’s recent idea of an online ‘toolkit’ to help port authorities adapt to climate change is certainly a step in the right direction but is yet to be fully developed.  Likewise, there are a range of online toolkits available for climate change adaptation for general infrastructure planning purposes, but few that are specifically targeted at port planners and asset managers.

Carrying out a vulnerability assessment and adaptation planning process is an important first step to demonstrate to internal and external stakeholders that ports have practically considered the implications of future climate change and more importantly, have a blueprint for future action that can be implemented over time and on an ‘as needs’ basis.  This balanced, risk-based approach to climate change adaptation can be encapsulated in three practical steps: 

  1. Identify and gather the critical information needed by the organisation to inform decision making.  For example, sourcing data in relation to global forecasts and scale down the information for more regional and local statistics to better understand what is likely to happen with the weather in the future.  The second part of this step is to then identify the key assets within the port and which of those assets are vulnerable based on their exposure and sensitivity to future climate change impacts.
  2. Develop response measures that are appropriate for implementation now such as monitoring and data collection, pilot/feasibility studies and the development or refinement of building and design guidelines.
  3. Implement triggers that can be incorporated into long term planning and serve as a flag for future action when the impacts from climate change become more apparent and are no longer considered an ‘acceptable’ risk. 

The words ‘climate change’ can often be met with cynicism but we can’t deny the fact that extreme weather events continue to create significant challenges for our coastal zones – challenges which ports cannot ignore.  However, effective adaptation does not need to involve major changes or shifts away from traditional port planning processes or require significant financial investment – it’s about considering the most cost effective approach to better understand the trajectory of impact on high risk/vulnerable assets or areas associated with port infrastructure.  Taking a more balanced, risk-based approach will help to debunk the mystery that often surrounds climate change and equip ports with the understanding and knowledge they need to ensure the protection of their high value assets

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