Advanced Search

Please click here to take a brief survey

How to prepare ports and waterfronts for climate change?
Alex Steffen, 17 Mar 09
Article Photo

Which coastal cities are planning most effectively -- and most realistically -- for climate change? We know now that the seas are rising much faster than expected and that our existing climate commitment is likely to lead to at least a meter in sea-level rise. As David Shukman writes for the BBC:

Professor Konrad Steffen from the University of Colorado, speaking at a press conference on Tuesday, highlighted new studies into ice loss in Greenland, showing it has accelerated over the last decade.
Professor Steffen, who has studied the Arctic ice for the past 35 years, told me: "I would predict sea level rise by 2100 in the order of one metre; it could be 1.2m or 0.9m. "But it is one meter or more seeing the current change, which is up to three times more than the average predicted by the IPCC." ...
Dr John Church of the Centre for Australian Weather and Climate Research added: "The most recent research showed that sea level is rising by 3mm a year since 1993, a rate well above the 20th century average."

In other words, while we want to do everything possible to move towards a zero impact society in the immediate future, we may well be looking at a meter or more of sea level rise even if we succeed completely (and, if current foot-dragging on climate laws are any indication, we should expect that sea level rise to be much higher than that -- indeed, the University of Washington's Climate Impacts Group predicts Puget Sound will rise by 50 inches or more).

Yet here in Seattle (Worldchanging's hometown), we're planning on making a massive investment in a new multi-billion dollar seawall and waterfront project that can only handle an 11 inch increase in sea level. And that seawall will only cover one small portion of our downtown waterfront.

What are the implications for ports? Consider this item, from the recent Copenhagen International Scientific Conference:

Similarly a study shows that while it will cost up to 128 billion yen (1 billion euro) to secure Japanese harbors against stronger winds and more frequent storms, failure to do so could result in the loss of 1.5 to 3.4 percent of Japan's GDP by 2085 (Japanese GDP in 2007 was 3.41 trillion euro). This is due to an increased number of days where harbors will be forced to close.
"Port planners should factor this in when designing port capacities. Their designs must be able to prevent delays and increased downtime due to winds and rain. Similarly, they must plan for sea defenses that can limit damage caused by waves. Failure to do so could lead to bottlenecks in the shipments of products and constrain Japanese economic growth" urges Miguel Esteban, Postdoctoral Fellow at the United Nations University Institute of Advanced Studies.

So I started looking locally for answers. Does the Port of Seattle have a climate change preparedness investment plan? Does it have any climate foresight and planning capacity at all? None that you can find on their website, other than this presentation from two years ago (PDF).

The point here is not to pick on Port officials or seawall engineers, it's to illuminate the degree to which our current planning and discussion are so out of touch with the known emerging reality that they are literally surreal -- even in Seattle, a major city nationally known for its progressive agenda regarding climate change. That's true not only in terms of waterfront planning, but in terms of transportation, economic development, energy infrastructure, building codes, water use, and so on.

What would it take for a city like Seattle to have a real discussion about how to prepare for life in a warming world?

And, to those residents of other coastal cities around the world, how are your own governments preparing for sea-level rise? Our timeline is short, relatively speaking, and failure to act will impact not only the negligent cities, but the rest of the world as well. So it seems like this is one area where publicizing solutions and best-practices, and encouraging others to follow those examples, is the only route that makes sense.

Photo credit: The Associated Press

Bookmark and Share


This is the long-term problem. There are short-term problems as well. It is reasonable to expect an increase in the rate of introductions of invasive species, assuming both climate-change driven disturbance and continued growth in global trade. One of the major pathways for introductions is via trade, and ports are both bottlenecks and critical control points for imported commodities. Complete regulatory exclusion through thorough inspection is virtually impossible; a second step would be to create an inter-agency early detection and rapid response system around ports for all taxa.

Proof of concept can be found in the US Forest Service's RAPDET pilot program, which monitored for only forest pests around select ports, and found several first-time detections of potentially serious forest pests.

Invasives cost the US economy alone billions of dollars a year (some estimates exceed $100 billion a year - numerically, this is "bailout territory"). It is going to be difficult enough to address sea level rise and changing weather patterns without the additional impacts of weeds and pests to further decimate our agricultural output.

Posted by: John Waugh on 18 Mar 09

Post A Comment

Please note that comments will remain open for only 14 days after the article is posted. While previous comments will remain visible, attempts to post new comments after this period will fail. This helps stop comment spam, so your forebearance is appreciated.

The Worldchanging comments are meant to be used for further exploration and evaluation of the ideas covered in our posts. Please note that, while constructive disagreement is fine, insults and abuse are not, and will result in the comment being deleted and a likely ban from commenting. We will also delete at will and without warning comments we believe are designed to disrupt a conversation rather than contribute to it. In short, we'll kill troll posts.

Finally, please note that comments which simply repost copyrighted works or commercial messages will be summarily deleted.

Yes No







MESSAGE (optional):

Search Worldchanging

Worldchanging Newsletter Get good news for a change —
Click here to sign up!


Website Design by Eben Design | Logo Design by Egg Hosting | Hosted by Amazon AWS | Problems with the site? Send email to tech /at/
Architecture for Humanity - all rights reserved except where otherwise indicated.

Find_us_on_facebook_badge.gif twitter-logo.jpg