International trade and world economies exposed to multi-billion-dollar climate risk to ports – Oxford study

Nearly nine in ten major ports globally are exposed to damaging climate hazards, resulting in escalating economic impacts on global trade, according to new research from the University of Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute (ECI).

Ports are crucial for the economy; they handle the vast majority of globe trade, are important hubs for industry and transport, and large providers of employment. 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 could cause physical damages to port infrastructure, and disrupt port operations – with far-reaching consequences. 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. And the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami damaged maritime assets worth $12 billion. Nevertheless, the climate risks faced by ports have not been quantified on a global scale – until now.

n today’s study, published in Communications Earth and Environment, researchers from the ECI provide a detailed picture of climate risks for 1,340 of the most important ports globally. It combines a new geospatial database of port infrastructure assets with the most detailed available information on natural hazards, including earthquakes, cyclones and flooding, as well as localised information on “marine extremes” (wind speeds, waves, temperature, overtopping).

‘We found 86% of all ports are exposed to more than three types of climatic and geophysical hazards. Extreme conditions at sea (e.g. storms) are expected to cause operational disruptions to around 40% of ports globally. What’s more, ports are exposed to other hazards including river flooding and earthquakes so port designers and operators have to take multiple hazards into consideration. That’s not always happening at the moment. For instance, the foundations of quay walls need careful consideration when exposed to earthquakes, the orientation and design of breakwaters when exposed to extreme waves and surges, and the drainage system when exposed to fluvial and pluvial flooding. If that doesn’t happen, we could see major disruptions to global trade and supply chains,’ says research lead Jasper Verschuur.

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