Ports & Terminals

Sea level rise could cost U.S. ports between $57 billion To $78 billion In upgrades

A University of Rhode Island team has concluded that the top 100 US ports may need to invest between $57 billion to $78 billion to accommodate a two-meter increase in sea level rise and recent surveys indicate that some U.S. port designers are beginning to incorporate sea level rise into their planning process.

Austin Becker, a Department of Marine Affairs professor at the University of Rhode Island, told AJOT that the $57 billion to $78 billion projection, which appeared in a 2017 report, describes a model for estimating the cost and materials that is a “thought exercise to encourage U.S. ports to become more aware of the need for climate adaptation in their policies and practices.”

The University of Rhode Island report focused on container terminals and developed a generic container terminal model. Projections were made that U.S. sea ports would need to spend between $57 billion to $78 billion to “elevate the 100 ports by two meters (six feet) and to reconstruct associated infrastructure.”  In California, for example, the report projected that ports would need to spend $9 billion for upgrades.

The model was based on a “two-berth marine container terminal” comprising 100 acres.

Since the report was published, Becker has worked on two surveys that indicate the port engineers and planners are becoming more engaged on the issue of sea level rise:
Becker says that although storm surges and flooding from recent hurricanes are raising awareness: “you are looking at an investment in the future that you would be making to make sure nothing happens later, which is a difficult concept to rationalize as an investment.” 

  • One survey, not yet published, focused on 15 North Atlantic ports and identifies problems cited by port officials that include “lack of understanding” of the threat but also shows officials developing strategies such as “risk assessments” and looking at possible new investments that the ports might make in the future.
  • A second survey, also not yet published, shows some firms working on port projects have incorporated sea level rise in their planning and some have not. This is based on a survey of 85 people representing 45 firms that work on port projects: “Engineers want clear guidance but that guidance is not yet available” because the threat is still perceived as being years away. 

Nevertheless, Becker says the Port of New York and New Jersey has made major strides in improving the safety of the Port complex following damage sustained during Hurricane Sandy: “the Port has moved assets away from lower-lying areas that could be subject to storm surges such as they experienced in 2012.”

Becker said that the American Society of Civil Engineers is “very involved” in sea level rise planning as well as the International Association of Ports and Harbors, which represents many ports around the world.

Becker says he expects ports in the United States to be supported in their efforts to adopt to higher sea levels but believes ports in less developed countries will not have the same support which means the import and export of goods will be subject to a growing threat of disruption as sea levels rise.


Stas Margaronis
Stas Margaronis


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