Container ships load and offload at the Port of Felixstowe, U.K.
Credit: International Maritime Organization, CC-BY 2.0
Source: Earth’s Future

Seaport footprints will need to expand by up to 3,689 square kilometers (1,424 square miles) worldwide in the next 3 decades to cope with the combination of sea level rise and rising demand, according to a new study in Earth’s Future.

Ships transport 80% of trade goods worldwide. Ports have been expanding since the 1980s to meet increasing growth in the sector driven by liberalization of trade, the opening of China’s economy, and increased use of containers.

The new study by Hanson and Nicholls modeled trade growth and port demand through 2050 under four combinations of climate policy interventions and global temperature increases. All scenarios lead to increased traffic through ports, requiring doubling or even quadrupling port areas.

The cost of building new port capacity to meet demand for freight traffic will dwarf sea level rise adaptation costs, according to the authors. The scenario with minimal greenhouse gas restrictions produced the highest cost projections, US$750 billion, generated mostly from port expansion to meet rising demand.

Previous studies of the economic impacts of climate change on ports have focused on the costs of adapting existing port facilities to sea level rise and stronger, more frequent storms. But demand for port services will also continue to rise, according to maritime trade and industry projections.

Policies designed to limit global temperature rise to 2°C by the end of century are expected to slow trade growth overall, according to the new study, and shift distribution of traded goods, increasing, for example, movement of bioenergy commodities and decreasing demand for fossil fuels. Energy commodities currently account for about 40% of seaborne trade, according to a 2018 United Nations report.

Incorporating adaptation strategies into new construction is a relatively low cost means to prevent future disruption from the effects of climate change, according to the study’s authors. (Earth’s Future,, 2020)

—Liza Lester (@lizalester), Staff Writer


Lester, L. (2020), Seaports expected to grow by up to fourfold by 2050, Eos, 101, Published on 09 September 2020.

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