A Rising Tide Floats All Boats, but Drowns Infrastructure: The Impact of Sea Level Rise on America’s Maritime Infrastructure

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Michael Sullivan


America’s maritime ports play a critical role in supporting domestic and international trade. They facilitate the movement of goods across all economic sectors and contribute trillions of dollars to the gross domestic product. In 2018, U.S. ports directly contributed 2.2 million jobs and $5.4 trillion in economic activity, representing approximately 26 percent of America’s gross domestic product.[1] According to the Department of Commerce, “Water transportation moves nearly 70 percent of all U.S. international merchandise trade, including 72 percent of U.S. exports by tonnage.”[2] There were over 82,000 vessel port calls at U.S. ports in 2018, requiring access to intermodal transportation systems for approximately 95 percent of U.S. imports and exports by weight.[3] All of this is occurring along the nation’s 12,833 miles of coastline.[4] The critical infrastructure that supports the movement of goods is vital to the flow of commerce throughout the nation and provides critical links for international trade.

Maritime port infrastructure includes the resources that support ships and cargo handling, including fixed shore facilities such as terminals, docks, and storage facilities; operational equipment including cranes, power supply, and auxiliary support vessels; and dredged channels and approaches to harbors.[5] In addition, complex intermodal transportation systems are inextricably linked to maritime ports. These connections include rail, road, air infrastructure access to them, and other maritime routes that by necessity are located close to port facilities. Developing infrastructure takes years to plan, design, and build, and infrastructure frequently outlives its planned 30- to 50-year lifespan. This means that much of what is being designed and built today will likely remain in place and operational until the end of this century.[6]

Domestic spending on maritime homeland security has focused on prevention and deterrence through robust intelligence collection, information sharing, physical security measures, and a sustained presence through marine, air, and shoreside patrols. The United States spent $2.8 trillion on the global war on terror during the 15 years between 2002 and 2017. Homeland security spending totaled $978.5 billion, or about 35 percent of the total federal funding from 2002 to 2017.[7] Counterterrorism spending averaged about $70 billion annually for the last 10 years.[8]

Earth’s climate is undergoing large-scale changes that are measurable, verifiable, and real. Average temperatures are climbing around the world. The year 2019 was the second-warmest year on record, and 2016 was the warmest year ever recorded.[9] With rising global temperatures, sea levels will rise. The National Climate Assessment notes that “projections indicate that the frequency, depth, and extent of both high tides and more severe, damaging coastal flooding will increase rapidly in the coming decades. An extreme global sea level rising upwards of 8 feet by 2100 is a possibility.”[10]

This examination of the threats, consequences, mitigation applications, and costs associated with sea level rise to U.S. maritime infrastructure in general and at the ports of Norfolk, Virginia, also known as the Port of Virginia, and San Diego, California, specifically. Both ports are similar in that they serve as transportation and transshipment hubs of similar throughput and are home to vital military installations including the largest U.S. Navy installations in the world. The Port of Virginia is the fifth-largest container gateway in the United States and contributes $101 billion to the gross domestic product of the region.[11] The Port of San Diego contributes approximately $245.1 billion to the region’s GDP.[12]

Given the long lead time necessary to plan, fund, and deliver capital projects and the decades-long lifespan of structures, roads, bridges, and other maritime infrastructure, homeland security planners need to address mitigation goals early to better position resources to mitigate future impacts. Those resources may be severely diminished in the future and will certainly be more competitive to access. The U.S. national debt has eclipsed a record $22 trillion, and it is likely the federal government will be challenged in sustaining spending at the current pace.[13] Competing demands on the federal budget will require cogent arguments and advance planning to counter shifting threats to national security. Increased vulnerabilities to critical infrastructure combined with greater competing demands for diminishing resources require a new approach to risk management and perhaps a refocusing of threat vectors. This project focuses on projections for the year 2100. By intentionally looking forward 80 years, we can match climate-related phenomena with infrastructure life-cycle costs and expected lifespans to portray impacts on specific regions.

Given the probability of a terror attack on U.S. domestic ports vis-à-vis the probability of impacts from sea level rise in a changing climate, this exercise examines the costs and benefits of devoting resources to a low-probability low-consequence threat when a high-probability, high-consequence weapon of mass destruction looms just over the horizon and provides recommendations for new policy prescriptions.

[1] Jon Shumake, “Study Finds U.S. Ports Contributed $5.4 Trillion to GDP,” American Shipper, March 20, 2019.

[2] “Logistics and Transportation Spotlight,” Select USA, accessed September 19, 2019, https://www.‌selectusa.gov/logistics-and-transportation-industry-united-states.

[3] Bureau of Transportation Statistics, Transportation Statistics Annual Report 2018 (Washington, DC: Department of Transportation, 2018), https://doi.org/10.21949/1502596.

[4] Benjamin H. Friedman, “Managing Fear: The Politics of Homeland Security,” Political Science Quarterly 126, no. 1 (Spring 2011): 78, https://www.jstor.org/stable/23056915.

[5] Gena Gibson et al., “Shipping Infrastructure,” Technology Brief T17 (Energy Technology Network, June 2011), 1, https://iea-etsap.org/E-TechDS/PDF/T17_Shipping_Infrastructure_v4_final_gs.pdf.

[6] Austin Becker, Ariel Hippe, and Elizabeth L. Mclean, “Cost and Materials Required to Retrofit US Seaports in Response to Sea Level Rise: A Thought Exercise for Climate Response,” Journal of Marine Science and Engineering 5, no. 44 (2017): 1, https://doi.org/10.3390/jmse5030044.

[7] Laicie Heeley, Counterterrorism Spending: Protecting America While Promoting Efficiencies and Accountability (Washington, DC: Stimson Group, May 2018), 11.

[8] Heeley, 12–13.

[9] Rebecca Lindsey and LuAnn Dahlman, “Climate Change: Global Temperature,” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, January 16, 2020, https://www.climate.gov/news-features/understanding-climate/climate-change-global-temperature; “Global Temperature,” National Aeronautics and Space Administration, accessed January 31, 2020, https://climate.nasa.gov/vital-signs/global-temperature.

[10] U.S. Global Change Research Program, Fourth National Climate Assessment, vol. 2 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2018), 329, https://nca2018.globalchange.gov.

[11] Erica E. Phillips, “At the Water’s Edge, Seaports Are Slowly Bracing for Rising Ocean Levels,” Wall Street Journal, February 11, 2019, https://www.wsj.com/articles/at-the-waters-edge-seaports-are-slowly-bracing-for-rising-ocean-levels-11549882801.

[12] “Gross Domestic Product,” Bureau of Economic Analysis, accessed March 2, 2020, https://www.‌bea.gov/data/gdp/gross-domestic-product.

[13] Bill Chappell, “U.S. National Debt Hits Record $22 Trillion,” National Public Radio, February 13, 2019, https://www.npr.org/2019/02/13/694199256/u-s-national-debt-hits-22-trillion-a-new-record-thats-predicted-to-fall.

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