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Climate risk to ports could have a huge economic impact

16 January 2023
Nearly nine in ten major ports globally are exposed to damaging climate hazards, resulting in escalating economic impacts on global trade and world economies. This is according to new research led by the University of Oxford and involving climate risk scientist Elco Koks from VU Amsterdam.

This is the first study that quantified the climate risks faced by ports in high resolution on a global scale. The scientists investigated over 1,300 of the most important ports. The climate risk totals 7.6 billion dollar per year, most of which is attributed to tropical cyclones and river flooding of ports. All results are published in Nature: Communications Earth & Environment.

Huge impact on a global scale
Ports have an essential role in the global economy and trade. But, by their very nature, ports are located in hazard-prone areas along the coast and close to rivers - exposed to storm and floods – and will have to cope with sea level rise and more severe storms because of climate change. This climate risk for ports is more than half as large as a previous estimate of the climate risk of road and rail infrastructure on a global scale.

The study combines a new detailed geospatial database of port infrastructure assets with information on natural hazards, including earthquakes, cyclones and flooding, as well as localised information on “marine extremes”, such as wind speeds and waves. 86% of all ports are exposed to more than three types of climatic and geophysical hazards. Extreme conditions at sea, such as storms, are expected to cause operational disruptions to around 40% of ports. As a measure of how big the problems could be, Hurricane Katrina (2005) shut down three ports in the US that handle almost half the country’s agricultural exports.

Ports who face the largest risk
The largest absolute climate risks are faced by large ports in Asia, the Gulf of Mexico and those in Western Europe. Yet the impacts could be greatest in middle income countries’ ports. 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 to economies they serve. Many initiatives are ongoing to upgrade outdated and inefficient port infrastructure at many of these ports.

This study shows that ports are at the forefront of climate impacts. Yet, our society heavily rely on many of the products supplied through these ports, imported from all over the world. As such, the authors conclude that adaptation of ports is urgently needed, and quantified risk analysis as presented in this paper can help organisations in prioritising investments.