Seaports add protections as ocean levels rise


(Wall Street Journal)

When the Port of Virginia began a sweeping renovation of its major Norfolk International Terminals, some easy-to-miss line items on the $375 million agenda included boosting the site's electric power stations several feet off the ground and adding data servers as far back from the water as possible.

The actions at the fifth-largest container gateway in the US are among the small steps seaports are starting to undertake as more reports project rising ocean levels in the coming years and cargo terminals consider the impact of higher waters and increasingly forceful storm surges.

Over the last 100 years, sea levels around Virginia's coast have risen about a foot and a half, and port officials say they could rise another foot and a half in the next 30 years.

The southeastern Virginia coast is among the most threatened areas in the country, according to a report by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, with big military facilities alongside the major commercial port set up along a low-lying land in what is known as the Tidewater region. "It's a clear and present problem, it's more than just an inconvenience," said John Reinhart, the port authority's chief executive.

The US government's National Climate Assessment released last November estimated that sea levels would rise six to 14 inches between 2000 and 2050, and as much as 4 feet by 2100. Coastal regions also face more flooding from more frequent and destructive storms, the report said, such as last year's Hurricane Michael, which came with heavy rains that left some parts of the East Coast underwater.

But the Port of Virginia is one of the few trade gateways in the US so far to start building protections even as more reports suggest potentially catastrophic impact to coastal areas from rising waters over the coming decades.

Experts say that is partly because of the nature of port infrastructure, where docks are built well above the water level to accommodate big cargo ships, and because the timespans for port construction and for projected rising water levels are so long, leaving port managers time to wait.

Most major ports have infrastructure plans that don't extend as far into the future as the forecasts for climate change, said Walter Kemmsies, an economist specializing in ports and infrastructure at real-estate firm Jones Lang LaSalle Inc.

"People in the port industry bake these things into their master plans; it's just that you can't bake something in that's 40 to 50 years out," Mr. Kemmsies said.

Ports whose berths are at least 14 feet above sea level at high tide should be safe from flooding for the near future, Mr. Kemmsies said. "As long as the probability is really low and it wouldn't matter if you raised everything by a foot or two, you leave it alone until the cost-benefit ratio might be higher," he said.

That is the case at the Port of Houston, where officials said container docks stand 18 feet above the water.

Houston is the largest US hub for energy exports and a rapidly growing container port. It also has withstood some of the worst storms to hit the US in recent years, including Hurricane Ike in 2008 and Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

Water surges during those storms overtook some port facilities, and Harvey's impact damaged some of the region's shipping channels. But the container docks remained clear in both hurricanes, said Rich Byrnes, the port's chief infrastructure officer.

Water levels in Galveston Bay are forecast to rise between 18 inches and 4 feet by 2065, but the Port of Houston doesn't have specific plans to address sea-level rise, said Mr. Byrnes, adding that Houston's docks will probably have been rebuilt by then anyway.