We rely on US ports — time for climate change protection

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Just over a year after the ship Ever Given famously blocked the Suez Canal, her sister ship the Ever Forward remains grounded in the Chesapeake Bay, casting a spotlight yet again on the role of shipping in the global supply chain. America’s ports and waterways are the lifeblood of our national security and prosperity. They are homes to our Navy and Coast Guard, and before the pandemic, our ports alone contributed to over one-quarter of U.S. GDP. Even at the height of the COVID-19 Omicron surge, ports such as Los Angeles and Savannah were seeing record volumes in cargo movement, demonstrating their critical role in the American blue economy and our post-pandemic recovery.

Recent supply chain disruptions have put U.S. seaports in the spotlight, motivating the $17 billion in funding allocated for them in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). December saw the first installment of this funding, with $241 million through the Department of Transportation’s Port Infrastructure Development Program for 25 projects to improve port facilities in 19 states and one territory. The White House followed suit in January announcing $14 billion in funding for over 500 ports and waterways projects across 52 states and territories in fiscal year 2022.

Included in this White House announcement was a commitment to better protect communities from climate change by increasing their resilience to flooding and reinforcing disaster mitigation and recovery from the effects of extreme weather. Unfortunately, nothing is said in the announcement about addressing the impact of climate change on ports and waterways.

A recent report paints a problematic picture, where weather related disruptions and delays, combined with infrastructure damage caused by sea level rise and extreme storms, are expected to impose significant costs on the marine transportation system. Additionally, increasing occurrences of extreme weather will degrade the health and safety of the personnel working in this vital industry.

The Biden administration can immediately address these weather and climate hazards with data, services and predictive impact tools. Rather than waiting years for the long-term projects announced by the Department of Transportation to materialize, the U.S. can seize several “shovel ready” opportunities now. First and foremost is to put better weather intelligence information in the hands of port operators and users. Advance knowledge of hazardous conditions can not only help minimize damage to landside infrastructure, but also increase the effectiveness of port operations. For example, the onset of fog forced the closure of the Galveston Ship Channel. Hurricanes have a greater impact of course, with a single storm shutting down operations for days. Depending upon the port, a single day shutdown can cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

The National Weather Service (NWS) under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) provides wide area marine forecasts and support products to shipping lines and U.S. port operators, but their expert meteorologists lack the resources to tailor their service to individual ships, piers and waterways. This capability is increasingly available in the private sector, with solutions such as route optimization apps, geospatial dashboards featuring insights and alerts and modern applications programming interfaces (APIs) that allow individual users to specify their location, activity and timeline for exactly what they will do and when. This kind of high-definition, actionable information that is available in the commercial weather sector is growing in demand as extreme weather impacts increase worldwide, and the potential economic benefit to our ports and waterways is enormous.

Another critical need is oceanographic data and services. NOAA’s Physical Oceanographic Real Time System (PORTS) program monitors tides, currents, and water levels below bridges to aide pilots in the safe maneuvering of vessels in ports and waterways.

With an extremely limited budget, NOAA’s PORTS program requires port authorities to absorb much of the cost of the oceanographic sensor hardware. This has slowed the program’s progress because port authorities have prioritized funding for major infrastructure over information technology infrastructure like this. By adding just a minor amount of IIJA funding for NOAA PORTS services, the Biden administration can accelerate these installations to more U.S. seaports faster, thereby dramatically boosting their safety and efficiency.

Lastly, high resolution bathymetric information is essential for the safe passage of vessels in and out of port. NOAA’s precision navigation service applies data from modern multi-beam sonar surveys to routinely update the nautical charts of shipping channels, which require periodic dredging to remove accumulated sediments. A compelling example is the 2017 Port of Long Beach precision navigation survey that enabled authorities to increase the draft for incoming ships from 65 to 69 feet. This increase not only allowed ships to carry additional product, it also reduced the need for lightering, thereby saving individual shipping companies over $10 million each year. Additionally, the recent grounding of the Ever Found in the Chesapeake Bay illustrates the consequences if such bathymetric information is disregarded.

NOAA’s precision navigation updates occur at a frequency moderated by historically scant available resources. A partial solution for this is the acquisition of autonomous survey vessels which are orders of magnitude more affordable than ships. Now with the flood of funding from the port waterside infrastructure, NOAA can accelerate precision navigation updates across all U.S. seaports to optimize their productivity.

This is a historic time for U.S. ports and waterways. The recent supply chain crisis exposed the importance of our marine transportation system to all of America — well beyond the port cities that support it. At the same time, the IIJA has offered a massive boost to both the landside and waterside infrastructure of America’s seaports. Allocating just a small fraction of this funding for modern weather, water and navigation data could result in a remarkable return on investment. Just as a prudent mariner heeds time, tide, wind and sea to secure a prosperous voyage, the U.S. needs to keep a weather eye on its port infrastructure investments to ensure they do not run aground.

Rear Admiral (ret.) Tim Gallaudet, Ph.D., is the former deputy administrator of NOAA, assistant secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere, and chairman of the coordinating board for the Committee on the Marine Transportation System (CMTS). He is the CEO of Ocean STL Consulting, LLC and host of the “American Blue Economy Podcast”.

Shimon Elkabetz is the CEO and co-founder of Tomorrow.io, a weather and climate security company who is contracting for NOAA weather modeling upgrades.

Joe Linza is the CEO and founder of Lynker, an environmental services company who is contracting for NOAA’s PORTS program and marine charting work.

Tags Climate change extreme weather Pandemic Ports Shipping Supply chain Tim Gallaudet Weather

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