Rising sea levels are unavoidable, but risks can be mitigated to lessen disruption across the supply chain.
The impact of climate change is already affecting food production around the world. Increasingly, the transportation and logistics part of the supply chain is facing its own challenges, including rising sea levels and flooding at key ports, which could have a disproportionate effect on perishable food shippers whose time- and temp-sensitive cargoes are distinguished—and simultaneously limited by—when and where their products are grown, harvested, and raised.
Analysis conducted by the U.S. military on sea level rise and its risk to ports and military bases drew the attention of Climate Central, an independent organization of scientists and journalists who research and report on climate change, which prompted further investigation.
Don Bain, senior advisor and climate engineer at Climate Central, said a critical element of the military’s analysis found that it wasn’t just the dock areas that faced impacts from rising seas, but cargo areas and road and rail links that serve the ports.
“This is a big deal, because if these areas flood, then people, cargo and material can’t get in or out of the port,” said Bain.
Climate Central started taking a closer look at ports around the U.S. to assess the risks to docks and other key locations throughout port complexes. They found similar vulnerabilities, i.e. while dock areas could be raised, hardly anyone was thinking about what would happen if other areas of the ports were flooded.
However, when Climate Central shared its findings with various port officials, there wasn’t much, if any, follow up discussion, recalled Bain.
“They tend to be much more operationally focused; they’re proud of their metrics—how many containers are going in and out, et cetera—and they should be, because these are totally appropriate supply chain metrics.”
Furthermore, when a port is disrupted by a hurricane, for example, the operations team responds to the event with the goal of executing a “quick recovery” in order to get back to business.
“But, sea level rise is much more chronic, and includes more flooding in the coming decades,” said Bain.
There are other barriers to discussions surrounding climate change.
“Risk associated with climate change is clocked at a different speed,” said Bain. “In other words, this kind of risk is more appropriate to the capital cycle, meaning the cycle at which ports update their capital improvement plans.”
Indeed, Climate Central’s subsequent review of various ports’ annual reporting found virtually no mention of climate risk.
“This is a problem, but it’s also a missed opportunity because ports are generally some of the easiest infrastructure to adapt,” Bain emphasized. “Yes, it’s going to cost millions of dollars, but it’s certainly do-able compared to other types of infrastructure that has to adapt,” such as highly complex buildings and structures like hospitals.
“For ports to survive and function they need to adapt with their partners—the local cities, counties and states—which provide the infrastructure to ports.”
On the other hand, discussions with planning authorities resonate deeper, according to Bain.
“They light up because they’re interested in economic development and they’re interested in preserving their region’s economic activity, which is intimately tied to the prosperity of the ports.”
Harnessing the influence of cold chain stakeholders
While cold chain stakeholders are among the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change on supply chains, reefer BCOs and the transportation and logistics partners that support them are likewise in a position to leverage their collective influence to address it and mitigate the risks.
The same is true for the pharmaceutical industry.
“Pharmaceutical shippers also understand the consequences of sea level rise and the effects on ports and global supply chains. When I talk to pharmaceutical executives, they are very concerned about the security and the integrity of their supply chains, and they’re very interested in talking about what’s going to happen in the near future relative to climate change,” remarked Bain.
It’s not surprising that pharmaceutical shippers are paying attention to this issue considering the industry’s significant migration of shipments from air to ocean in recent years.
Meanwhile, sea level rise is happening faster in some regions than others due to variables like ocean currents, wind, and gravitational effects.
“Sea level rise is not equally distributed,” Bain noted. “For example, the mid-Atlantic and Gulf coasts have a bigger problem coming, while the West coast is in better shape, although Asia is also problematic.”
Land in some areas of the Gulf coast is actually sinking, he said. In Louisiana, land is sinking as fast is sea levels are rising, so the overall impact is twice as pronounced. As for the West coast, tectonically it’s not sinking, and in some places it’s even rising.
The result is, “When it comes to sea level rise, a one foot rise in south Texas might cause water to travel three miles inland, whereas the same one foot rise in Los Angeles may only go as far as several hundred yards inland,” said Bain.