UNITED NATIONS -- Port operators worldwide have some knowledge that climate change could pose a threat to their operations, but to date, few studies have been undertaken to determine just how serious the threat is.
The U.N. Conference on Trade and Development in Geneva is preparing to fill this gap in knowledge.
Beginning tomorrow, UNCTAD will host a two-day discussion with port and shipping industry insiders and their regulators on the expected climate change impacts to ports and international shipping operations. It will be the largest such event held, the culmination of efforts started in 2009 by U.N. agencies and port associations to get as much hard facts and data gathered as soon as possible and to disseminate them all to ports worldwide, so they can prepare for what scientists warn is inevitable.
"One of the problems is there is very little targeted study and not very much cooperation or information-sharing," said Regina Asariotis, a policy and legislation expert at UNCTAD who is organizing the conference. "Of course, from our perspective, that's particularly problematic for the developing countries who are disadvantaged in terms of capacity, knowledge, et cetera."
Though the impacts of climate change have been extensively studied in other areas, especially in agriculture and for flood zones, up to now there has been little comprehensive investigation into how shipping ports will be affected.
Higher tides and more violent storms hold obvious consequences, but Asariotis says that thus far, port authorities globally don't have much hard facts or concrete data to lean on when considering future scenarios that may require massive investments to prepare for.
"This is one area where there isn't much happening," she said.
80 percent of trade is waterborne
UNCTAD was established in the 1960s to help developing countries tap into the global economic system post-colonialism. Though officials there have no direct authority over ports, they're anxious to get the conversation over the need to adapt ports to climate change moving, since some 80 percent of all international trade is waterborne and some key ports are the equivalent of lifelines to several poor nations.
The topic of port vulnerabilities in the face of climate change was first discussed at UNCTAD in 2009 at an expert meeting held on maritime transport issues. There, 180 delegates from industry, governments and academia complained that there was "too little attention" being paid to the threat facing ports, Asariotis said.
That prompted the agency to begin its work, including a collaborative initiative with the U.N. Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), which was originally set up in 1947 to assist with postwar rebuilding efforts. UNECE has since established an expert group on ports and climate change that is expected to finish its work within two years.
With hundreds of ports tied to one another in often intricate and complex trade links, even a temporary disruption to one far-flung port facility can have wide-ranging implications on all global trade if there are no suitable alternative ports nearby.
With a sea level rise of 1 to 2 meters anticipated over the next 90 years, huge sums of money may be necessary to invest in infrastructure protections. Upgrades to adapt to higher tides than what are normally expected are one topic that participants will consider during their discussions tomorrow and Friday.
The problem with storm surges, especially in ports vulnerable to hurricanes and other severe weather, poses an even greater challenge.
Mike Savonis, a former adviser to the U.S. Department of Transportation now working at the private consultancy ICF International, says his 2003 to 2008 study of the Gulf of Mexico coast made it clear just how serious the threat is.
U.S. Gulf port damage gets wider study
"We looked at sea level rise of 2 to 4 feet, which we thought very reasonable, very likely," Savonis said. "With 4 feet of sea level rise, we found that about three-quarters of the freight facilities and non-freight facilities at ports would be inundated."
The situation becomes worse when storm surge enters the picture.
The work that Savonis did for the well-known Gulf Coast Study overlapped with the landfalls of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. Katrina, which flooded most of New Orleans, also shut down the Mississippi River port for an extended period and threatened to seriously upset U.S. Midwest food exports, he noted.
The storm not only swamped port infrastructure with floodwaters but also flooded roads and rail lines to and from the port and pushed silt into the harbor, which made dredging necessary to clear the channel, he said.
Impacts were also felt at the Port of Houston and that city's famous Houston Ship Channel after Hurricane Rita swept over the eastern edge of the city. Though the 50-mile inland ship channel and port are more resilient than other coastal ports, Savonis acknowledged, the storm surge drove enough water into the channel to cause flooding deep in Houston neighborhoods that border it.
Savonis' research shows that 98 percent of all port infrastructures in the Gulf of Mexico region are vulnerable to storm surges of 18 feet in height. The fact that much of the land in the Gulf Coast is gradually subsiding is only making the situation worse. The Gulf Coast ports are the points of entry for most U.S. oil imports and grain exports.
Savonis will be sharing his findings in Geneva with week with representatives from the International Chamber of Shipping, the International Association of Ports and Harbors (IAPH), and others. IAPH is also expected to present findings from a study it undertook and a survey of port managers worldwide. Conference participants say the body of knowledge about the problem is rapidly growing.
"Prior to 2008, there were studies on impacts, including in the United States, but those studies were possibilities, it could be this, it could be that," Savonis said. "It was only in 2008 that we started seeing the studies, our own included at the federal highway administration on the Gulf Coast, as to what is likely to happen, and to begin to be able to bracket possible futures as to how bad it may be and look at the actual facilities."
The UNCTAD meeting "Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation: A Challenge for Global Ports," will take place at the U.N. complex in Geneva from Sept. 29 to 30.