How Ports Should Address Climate Change Risks
March 4, 2021
Estimated Reading Time: 9 minutes

Climate change will affect every community – most specifically and significantly coastal communities – and the ports and terminals that provide critical services at these locations. Given the importance of ports to our global supply chain, it is imperative that owners, operators and other stakeholders understand and address the climate change related risks.

Questions to consider are: What needs to be done now, and what are the short- and long-term steps that must be taken to mitigate potential risks and secure your supply chain? How will climate change affect the Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) responsibilities for your port or port project?

How will climate change impact ports and terminals – and the global supply chain?

Ports and terminal projects are unique with respect to location, arrangement, type, size of operation, expected throughput and risk tolerance, and can be affected by a unique combination of climate change processes and mechanisms. For example:

  • A port in Alaska is likely to be affected by rapidly increasing temperatures, leading to reduction of ice cover and permafrost degradation. Reduction in ice cover will lead to a prolonged open water season, reducing the viability of winter ice roads, and exposing infrastructure to different wave patterns, while at the same time making import and export possible over extended periods of time with different vessels.
  • An iron-ore export terminal in Australia may need to go through an expensive and lengthy repair program to restore the damaged breakwater toe and armor layer and even stop operation to replace infrastructure installed on top of the breakwater, which has been affected by excessive overtopping.
  • A transhipment facility in Western Africa may experience interruption and long delays in their barging operation because of more frequent high waves in the shipping route.
  • A power plant in the Caribbean may face inefficiency in its cooling system as sea water temperature rises. On the other hand, thawing of permafrost in arctic regions may lead to accelerated shoreline erosion jeopardizing access roads, pipelines, and rail connections to a nearby port, as well as lead to ground instability issues for all types of infrastructure.
  • A previously well-sheltered oil export facility in the Gulf of Mexico may be impacted by excessive hurricane winds or wave slam forces triggered by Sea Level Rise (SLR) on its dock.
  • Profitability of a liquefied natural gas (LNG) import terminal in South Pacific may be affected by excessive weather-related vessel maneuvering challenges and berth downtime reducing throughput.
  • A ferry terminal in Western Canada may need to stop operation due to inundation and infrastructure damage caused by a combination of Sea Level Rise (SLR) and adverse sea conditions.

Any prolonged interruption in port or terminal operation, either caused by shipping delays, berth downtime, sedimentation, and infilling (which requires maintenance dredging), or suspending or slowing down operation to replace or repair damage, can affect this important node in the supply chain and prevent the client from importing or exporting product or providing services.

Changing climate may affect the conditions around existing ports and terminals, and what worked in the past may no longer be resilient. Many existing ports and terminals which have been designed to standards and guidelines from more than 20 years ago will need to retrofit to adapt to projected design conditions.

Our approach guides you through how considering climate change can improve the resilience of your facility.

How can ports and terminals be resilient in a changing climate?

Building or maintaining resistance and resilience to disturbances in the face of climate change requires a holistic approach to be applied by an interdisciplinary set of professionals. This includes technical and engineering skills, regulatory and stakeholder engagement, environmental and socio-economic impact analysis capabilities, innovation and, most importantly, the passion to proactively reduce the effects of climate change.

Analysis and development of solutions to mitigate coastal-related climate change and its effects needs climate change vulnerability and risk assessment, simulating different scenarios to evaluate likelihood and potential consequences of a future extreme climate event and determining its degree of risk. With that information at hand, the team can then develop sustainable, constructible and scalable approaches that are resistant and resilient to meet the challenges posed by climate change.

When undertaking port and terminal projects, we recommend the following process to address climate change adaptation:

1. Evaluation and data gathering

This step consists in evaluating existing or new port and terminal operations, asset management, data gathering, field inspections (if needed), and identifying the project’s or operation’s needs and stakeholders’ (such as owners, operators, shipping companies, financial institutes, and regulators) priorities.

2. Risk assessment

Once the unique characteristics of the project are understood, a risk assessment is often conducted to identify project specific mechanism(s), with varying likelihood and consequences, which will be triggered by climate change – such as sea level rise, projected operational and extreme weather conditions, wave force, overtopping and inundation.

Risk assessments can be either qualitative or quantitative depending on the project stage (selection, planning, development, construction, operation, decommissioning), project lifetime, available information, and identified risk level. For example, a short-term project with low risks may only require a qualitative risk assessment, as the changes experienced over the project lifetime from climate are much less than those experienced on a seasonal basis. Likewise, a long-term project with moderate or high-level risks would likely benefit from a qualitative risk assessment to better understand the identified climate risks to the project, and how they may change over the lifetime of the project. Deterministic and probabilistic modelling is used to represent risks under current and future climate conditions in a quantitative risk assessment.

Risk assessments often have the biggest impact to the success of the project when executed in the selection and planning phases of a project, allowing for a proactive approach to climate resilience.

3. Development of (updated) design criteria

It is important to identify the vulnerability of an operational port and terminal project – or evaluate the feasibility of a new project – to climate change and consider potential future changes in design condition. To identify design parameters, and wind and wave conditions in particular, a regional wave model will be developed using projected wind information for different scenarios (i.e., optimistic, realistic, and pessimistic).

Instead of relying on wave hindcast models and assuming wind and wave patterns observed and calculated in the past 20 years will be applicable to the next 20 years, these updated scenarios will re-estimate operational and extreme wind and wave conditions for selected locations during the design life of the project.

4. Developing mitigation measures

This step in our approach consists of engineering and design of potential mitigation measures, utilizing asset management capabilities, financial modeling results and construction knowledge and experience. This will include identification of different adaptation paths, trade off studies and developing thresholds for different levels of mitigation on those paths, and ultimately providing technical assistance to clients to select the preferred approach which fits best with design objectives. Potential adaptation paths to consider include making the design resistant to climate change, implementing elements in the design to be resilient to climate change, or developing plans to re-arrange or relocate at-risk elements of the project.

5. Monitoring and updating path forward

Considering uncertainties associated with climate projections, a monitoring program needs to be implemented to observe the performance of selected approach with respect to the project KPIs, and update the path forward accordingly, when needed.

By following this recommended process, port and terminal operators and asset owners can feel confident that they are prepared to continue operations in the face of a changing climate. Developing resilience to potential physical risks not only secures the supply chain, but improves the overall Environmental, Social and Governance responsibilities of your port or port project.


Keyvan Mahlujy, M.Sc., P.Eng., is a Senior Coastal Engineer at Golder. He has over 25 years of experience in coastal aspects of port and terminal design, throughout all stages of the project lifecycle. Keyvan has specialist expertise in evaluation and design of coastal structures including breakwaters, causeways and revetments; and coastal numerical modelling including met-ocean studies, dynamic mooring analysis and berth downtime assessment. He has acted as design engineer, coastal lead, engineering manager and project manager for development of coastal structures and port facilities around the world. A few examples are Quebrada Blanca Phase 2 Port Facility (Chile), Peru LNG Terminal (Peru), Mina de Cobre Terminal (Panama), Port Preston (Australia), Presidente Kennedy Terminal (Brazil), Altamira LNG Terminal (Mexico), Jorong Terminal (Indonesia), Bahman Port (Iran), Silangan Copper Gold Port (Philippines), and Canaport LNG Terminal (Canada).

Janya Kelly, Ph.D., is a Climate Change and Air Quality Specialist at Golder with over ten years of experience working in climate change adaptation and mitigation. Dr. Kelly has completed climate risk assessments to understand organizational and site-level vulnerabilities to climate change, as well as develop and analyze case studies related to climate vulnerability. She has developed detailed climate change datasets for integration into design, modelling of the environment and climate risk assessments. She is Golder’s Sustainable Development and Climate Change Technical Community subject matter expert on climate change adaptation.

Keyvan Mahlujy

Keyvan Mahlujy Member Name

Senior Coastal Engineer

Janya Kelly Member Name

Climate Change & Air Quality Specialist

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