Climate Risks

Climate risks to global seaports operations

8 months ago
5 min

Disruptions to port operations can ripple through supply chains, resulting in widespread economic loss. Research published in the journal Nature in July 2023 came to an alarming result:

Annually, US$81 billion of global trade and at least US$122 billion of world economic activity are exposed to systemic risks from extreme weather events.

In this study, systemic risks are understood as the impacts of port interruptions on global transport, trade and supply chains, caused by adverse weather conditions.

Ports are central links in the flow of goods. They move about 80% of the volume and about 50% of the value of global trade. But they are located in regions that are especially sensitive to the impacts of extreme weather events.

Around 72% of port authorities responding to UNCTAD in 2017 were impacted by extreme events, causing delays (60%), disruption of operations (76%), in addition to physical damage (45%).

Therefore, understanding past port disruptions and projecting future changes is vital to [building resiliency in the global network of ports and trade]. In this article, we will address the main risks to port operations associated with extreme weather events.

1. Interruptions and delays in port operations

2. Damage to Port Infrastructure

3. Accidents and Collisions

4. Risks to the Safety of Workers

5. Financial Losses and Increased Operating Costs

6. Planning and Management Challenges.

Interruptions and delays in port operations

The port operation is directly affected by adverse weather conditions such as storms, strong winds, waves and floods, with impacts ranging from the cancellation or delay of berthing and unberthing operations, to the stoppage of the rear and pier operations. As a consequence, financial losses for port operators, ships and companies that depend on maritime transport are a fact.

An analysis of port disruptions due to natural disasters from 2011 to 2019, based on 141 incidents of disruptions at 74 ports in 12 countries, found some alarming results.:

1. About half of the events led to the complete closure of port operations.

2. Between these total closure events, the average duration of interruptions to port operations was 6 days.

3. In the case of partial restrictions, the events lasted an average of 5 days.

The analysis also examined how the duration of the port disruption was related to the severity of the event. It was found that a 1 m increment in wave height or 10 m/s in wind speed was associated with an average increase of 2 days in the duration of port outage.

Damage to Port Infrastructure

Strong waves, storms and high tides can cause damage to port structures such as wharves, piers, breakwaters and cranes. In this case, the functioning of the ports can be seriously impaired, with large costs involved in rebuilding the port assets and a long-term interruption in the logistics network.

According to the previously mentioned study Port disruptions due to natural disasters: Insights into port and logistics resilience, interruptions in longer port operations were mainly associated with damage to infrastructure.

For example, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 caused $1.7 billion in damage to Louisiana ports, resulting in an estimated loss of $882 million in agricultural trade. After the hurricane passed, the port of New Orleans was closed for almost 4 months.

Accidents and Collisions

About 90% of maritime accidents occur in restricted regions or in shallow waters. Under these conditions, the effect of wind, sea and current become more significant on ships because they are at low speed. Especially in adverse weather conditions that can increase the risk of accidents, such as collisions between ships, between ships and port structures, or stranding.

The biggest current example was the blockade of the Suez Canal for six days by the ship Ever Given, in March 2021. After running aground in the midst of strong winds, the ship, 400 meters long, interrupted traffic along the main maritime route that connects Asia and Europe, through which 12% of all world trade is carried. Global trade was disrupted as hundreds of ships became stranded.

Risks to the Safety of Workers

Cargo handling in strong winds, docking maneuvers in storms, ship and infrastructure maintenance and other activities in adverse conditions increase the likelihood of accidents and injuries, posing risks to the safety of port workers.

It is not uncommon to have reports like the one in Durban, South Africa in 2018, where a dock worker was injured when a stack of containers collapsed due to high winds. The worker suffered serious injuries.

In 2016, strong winds caused a container to overturn at the Port of Santos, resulting in the death of a port worker. The accident highlighted safety risks in adverse weather conditions and exposed the need to use weather risk management systems to safeguard lives.

Increased Operating Costs

We have already seen that interruptions and delays in port operations due to extreme weather events can result in significant financial losses. In day-to-day operations, adverse weather conditions can also generate:

1. Additional security and precautionary measures, such as transportation surcharges and reduced cargo volume, which result in higher operational costs for port operators and transport companies. Like the Panama Canal with the arrival of El Niño in 2023.

2. Damage to cargo and additional costs for repairs and repositioning of vessels that negatively affect the operational efficiency and profitability of the port.

3. Need to hire additional staff and rent special equipment to ensure safe operations.

4. Route diversions to avoid dangerous areas that may result in additional fuel costs, extended travel time and adjustments to logistical plans.

5. Loss of customer loyalty due to frequent downtime of operations.

Planning and Management Challenges

Managing sea and weather conditions effectively requires careful planning and advance decision making. Sudden changes in weather conditions create challenges for planning port operations, which become even greater as the impacts of climate change on the port sector advance.

To address these risks, ports need to adopt advanced weather and maritime monitoring systems, develop contingency plans, implement safety measures and training for workers, and collaborate closely with authorities and related organizations to ensure safe and efficient operations.

Proactive planning in relation to adverse weather conditions requires a complete understanding of climate risks, predictability of possible impacts and action plans to mitigate risks.

See how to start resilience and reduce vulnerability to climate events in the article about the [3 initial steps to adapt ports to climate change].

Mariana ThéveninBusiness Intelligence and Marketing Leader
Passionate about the movement of the ocean, Mariana is an oceanographer and a master in physical oceanography. She comes from more than 5 years of experience in science disclosure to create high-value content that shows the importance of proactiveness in climate security.
Passionate about the movement of the ocean, Mariana is an oceanographer and a master in physical oceanography. She comes from more than 5 years of experience in science disclosure to create high-value content that shows the importance of proactiveness in climate security.

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