As ocean temperatures rise, shipowners look for ways to cope

Emissions from shipping industry, along with emissions from other key sectors, contribute to climate change, and therefore to rising ocean temperatures. What will this mean for the maritime industry, and how can ship and port infrastructure be upgraded to deal with this challenge?

Text: Rachel Proby Photo: 123RF

The world is heating up, and its oceans are no exception. According to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the oceans absorb the majority of the heat created by greenhouse gas emissions, causing their temperature to rise. During this summer, the hottest on record in the Northern Hemisphere, unusually high temperatures were seen on coasts and seas around the world. 

The relationship between warming oceans and the shipping industry is complex and interdependent. Shipping accounts for 3% of world emissions – the same as Germany – and, as such, is a large contributor to global temperature rise. This, in turn, will increasingly affect the infrastructure the shipping industry relies upon in the future.

Melting ice, rising waters

One of the most obvious impacts of rising ocean temperatures has been felt in the Arctic. The Arctic sea ice is declining at the fastest rate in a millennium, and its retreat opens up the possibility of shipping via the Northern Sea Route (NSR) along the Russian Arctic coast. Use of the NSR is only just the beginning, and the need for icebreakers and specialised ships and crews means that the route is unlikely to become popular any time soon. 

Jean-Paul Rodrique, an expert on transport geography at Hofstra University, notes that even if the NSR is used more frequently, it will chiefly increase access to Arctic ports and some of the resources contained within the Arctic, rather than reshaping global shipping routes overall. According to Rodrique, the result of the warming Arctic will most likely be increased use of “some ports in the Arctic on a regular basis.” This will mean that those ports can be involved in accessing resources in the Arctic interior, which are difficult to reach.

Warmer ocean temperatures and diminishing amounts of ice do have another consequence, however: rising sea levels. In September, the IPCC released a special report on how the ocean and cryosphere –the frozen parts of the planet – are being affected by climate change. It found that melting ice in the Arctic and Antarctic and from glaciers has already significantly increased the amount of water in the oceans. The rate at which water is released is accelerating and is likely to lead to a sea level rise of between 60 and 110cm by 2100. 

Such a rise could, eventually, jeopardise cities and ports at sea level. While Rodrique notes that the effect of rising sea levels currently is only ‘marginal’, in the future, higher seas could have an impact. 

Climate change has also altered the behaviour of the Gulf Stream, the system of currents that moves warm water from the tropics along the east coast of the United States and across the Atlantic to Europe. A weakening Gulf Stream would mean that sea levels rise unevenly, with particular impact on places such as Florida. The increased prevalence of extreme weather events such as hurricanes also would make sailing in certain regions more dangerous, an effect that is already being felt in the cruise industry in areas like the Caribbean. 

The need for new port infrastructure

Some of the ports most likely to be affected are already trying to grapple with the problem. River ports, such as Rotterdam in the Netherlands, are particularly at risk from rising sea levels. Rotterdam is the largest port in Europe and is crucial for the continent’s trade. It also sits outside the city’s flood defence system and is open to the North Sea. Because of these factors, planning for climate change has long been a priority for the port authority. Many of the port’s facilities are already elevated, but studies are being conducted on the measures that must be taken to mitigate against climate change in the future, including strengthening flood and storm defences. The port is also encouraging ships to invest in renewable power, to reduce any additional negative effects on the environment. The whole city hopes to be climate proof by 2025.

Other ports are beginning to catch on. The seas around the coast of Virginia have risen just under half a metre in the last century, one of the fastest rates of sea level rise in the United States (relative to the speed at which land is sinking). They could rise another 35 cm by 2050, and by over a metre by 2100, according to the government’s National Climate Assessment. The Port of Virginia in Norfolk, the fifth-largest port for shipping containers in the U.S., has begun preparing for the future. Last year, as part of an overall renovation, the port began moving its electric power stations off the ground and its data servers further inshore to keep them out of the path of rising waters. 

Ports elsewhere are being encouraged to do more. In December last year, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) warned ports that if they are not ready to cope with the projected impacts of climate change, they could harm the trade and sustainable development goals of all nations. “The impacts may be severe, and, given what is at stake, we have no time to lose,” said Regina Asariotis, UNCTAD’s head of policy and legislation at the time of the announcement.

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