Ports should collaborate with environment, scientific communities

By Bert Smith*

TThe 2014 National Climate Assessment predicts two scenarios that are likely to seriously threaten seaports and marine operations: the average global sea level will rise by up to (and more than) one metre (up to 4 ft.) by the year 2100; and, there is every likelihood that there will be a significant increase in the number of high-intensity Atlantic tropical storms. The impacts of climate change should therefore be of paramount concern to the shipping industry and particularly port authorities.

While attention in 2016 will no doubt focus on the opening of the expanded Panama Canal, continuing consolidation of container lines and bleak freight rates, port administrators need to remain mindful of the impact of climate change on their operations.

On December 12, 2015, consensus was reached by 195 countries to reduce their carbon output as soon as possible so as to reduce global warming to less than 2oC. The historic agreement was reached in France, at the end of the 21st annual session of the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the 11th session of the Meeting of the Parties to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. The countries reached consensus after tortuous hours of negotiations and, at the end, proudly presented what has since been dubbed the ‘Paris Agreement’.

The historic pact signed by all the countries represented, including Caribbean states, has apparently gone unnoticed by regional port operators and port administrators. This may be because maritime transportation is not integrated in the national climate change agendas of the governments in the region, despite the fact that seaports play a critical role in their national economies. Island-states depend heavily on maritime commerce, imported fuels and the cruise ship industry.

Perhaps another reason for the apparent lack of interest is the absence of any specific mention of shipping or seaports in the final text of the Agreement. The primary reason for this omission is the recognition by the signatories that the International Maritime Organisation is the competent authority to adopt global measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from ships.

Unlike shipping however, ports and terminals are generally not subject to international regulations. The onus is on Governments and national and regional associations to assess the implications of the measures agreed in Paris. These measures will, ultimately, have a direct impact on the cost of port operations and port competitiveness.


The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), in its 2015 Maritime Transportation review, highlighted the vulnerability of seaports to the impacts of climate change given their location in coastal areas. Rising water levels, floods, storms, precipitation, extreme weather events, coastal erosion, inundation and deterioration of hinterland connections were identified as major concerns which in turn impacted shipping volumes and costs, cargo loading and capacity, sailing and/or loading schedules, storage and warehousing.

Other economic implications include increased insurance costs arising from the increased risk of damage to port facilities and the TT Club1 has reported that wind damage to quayside cranes has been the biggest weather-related cost to terminals globally. The economic impact of extreme weather events was evident in October 2015 when the Port of Nassau was closed in anticipation of the effects of the passage of hurricane Joaquin which forced several cruise ships carrying more than 25,000 passengers altogether, to cancel their calls on that port.

Subsequently, hurricane Patricia made landfall in Mexico as a category 5 hurricane resulting in the closure of the Port of Manzanillo, Mexico’s busiest port. Meteorologists said that hurricane was to be the most powerful ever recorded in the Western Hemisphere.

Flooding will interrupt commerce.
Coconut Grove, Florida

Having regard to the predicted increase in extreme weather events, port closures will become more frequent and the consequent disruption to commerce will be significantly more costly as compared to a port closure due to a labour dispute.

Hurricane floods, Havana, Cuba

Considering the impact of climate change on marine infrastructure, port performance will no longer be influenced only by a stable labour relations environment, efficiency of cargo handling equipment, depth of channels or the level of facilitation by government agencies but also the level of resilience to cope with extreme weather events.


Smart seaport administrators will not only be able to successfully implement appropriate strategies but will also be able to minimise disruption to operations by having a port recovery plan which enables the resumption of operations within a short time.

The US Marine Transportation System Recovery Unit (MTSRU), with some adaptation for small ports, provides a useful template for improving the resilience of ports to climate change impacts. The unit is comprised of terminal operators, harbour pilots, ship agents, stevedores, port authorities and other public and private stakeholders in the port community. Its sole purpose is the restoring of operations in the event of a port-wide disruption. Its framework allowed ports on the east coast to be reopened within a short period after hurricane Sandy in 2012 created a 14-foot storm surge.

Port operators have no choice but to be proactive in their response to the threats posed by climate change.

Although there is a high level of uncertainty in predicting the impact of storm surges, wind damage or sea level rise, ports should collaborate with the environment and scientific community in planning their strategies to reduce the threats posed by climate change. []

1 The TT Club is the leading provider of insurance and related risk management services to the international transport and logistics industry.

  • First published February 1, 2016

Bertrand Smith

* Bert Smith is Director Legal Affairs at the Maritime Authority of Jamaica.