Every port in a storm

By Dr. Alicia Martinez de Yuso, ZLC Project Manager, and Dr. Luca Urciuoli, ZLC Adjunct Professor.

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The European economy, indeed European society, is critically dependent on international shipping. Any impairment to the smooth and predictable functioning of our ports and their supporting infrastructure disrupts our supply chains, damages our industries, and can directly impact on the welfare of our citizens. Yet we are increasingly vulnerable, not just to specific events ranging from Red Sea piracy to vessels hitting bridges or going ‘sideways in Suez’, but to the increasing threats posed by climate change effects.

A new project, in which ZLC is participating, is being funded by the EU’s Horizon Europe budget, will develop new approaches to enhancing the resilience of our ports and infrastructure against extreme weather events.

‘Those who go down to the sea in ships’ have of course always been vulnerable to the vagaries of the weather, but it is undeniable that the incidence of storms, strong winds, tidal surges, coastal flooding, and conversely droughts and heatwaves, is growing (and even climate change deniers must acknowledge that growth in the sheer size and scale of vessels and trade dependencies is making even ‘normal’ weather fluctuations more impactful).

Severe flooding in July 2021 affected countries across Europe, creating ‘insured losses’ of €2.55 billion, and total damage of up to €10 billion. One report estimated that by 2023 517 EU ports would have been impacted by rising sea levels and floods; and 852 by the end of the century.

Floods and storms don’t only damage or even sink vessels, they can knock out port facilities through collision or inundation, and sever road, rail and inland water links. Unusual weather or currents can even relocate sandbanks and bars, potentially blocking port access. There can also be impacts for wildlife, ecology and pollution. Meanwhile, prolonged heatwaves and droughts may be inflicting annual losses of around €9 billion – it is becoming commonplace for the Rhine, arguably Europe’s most important waterway, to endure restricted navigation because of reduced water levels.

SAFARI is (almost) an acronym for SAFe climAte Resilient Infrastructure, and its main thrust is to develop a generic digital platform, a ‘digital twin’, for the management of port infrastructure which will devise emergency management modules informed by operational, maintenance and analytic understanding. The goal is that implementation of these modules before, during and after extreme weather events should maintain port operations at over 80% of normal capacity.

Besides maintaining port operations, SAFARI will also be looking to achieve significant (20%) modal shift across ports’ supporting transport infrastructure, which will not only improve resilience but reduce the environmental impacts and downtimes that inevitably arise when operations are in ‘emergency mode’ without any clear-cut plan. The project will also look at measures to strengthen existing port infrastructure, and ensure the safety and welfare of personnel, vessels and biodiversity during and in the aftermath of extreme weather events. Approaches to these issues will include the development of digital twins to model preventative maintenance, deployment of advanced technologies such as drones for river margin monitoring, techniques for submarine mapping of shifting sediments and robot-assisted repair, and impact assessment simulations, as well as the creation of better safety equipment and training programmes for port personnel who are inevitably exposed to fairly risky conditions.

All this also requires the development of governance models and guidelines that will allow owners, operators and other stakeholders in port and associated infrastructure to assess climate risks and hazards effectively. These will need to integrate operational, structural, institutional and socio-economic factors if they are to be both comprehensive and replicable across a wide range of ports around Europe’s coasts and indeed inland. An important aspect is that SAFARI’s approach to resilience planning should be both affordable and as far as possible applicable to existing infrastructure.

SAFARI’s work will be demonstrated and verified in pilot programmes at three selected ports – Dunkirk on the Channel/North Sea coast of France, Lisbon on the Atlantic coast of Portugal, and Seville in Spain, which is an inland port (although inland waterways are also relevant to Lisbon). Additionally, Livorno in Italy and Tripoli in the Lebanon will both represent Mediterranean Sea conditions and act to show that the SAFARI approaches can be successfully replicated.

The pilots will each focus on different aspects of the work – at Dunkirk, demonstrating capacity maintenance of the port and its hinterland infrastructure during extreme weather; at Seville, maintaining navigability over the 80km of the Guadalquivir that connects the port with the sea; Lisbon will be demonstrating enhanced intermodality across the port and its associated inland waterways (the River Tagus – Lisbon’s port lies on both sides of this wide and little-bridged estuary). Livorno will be seeking to replicate aspects of SAFARI’s work on infrastructure monitoring and port safety, while at Tripoli the emphasis will be on measures to protect water quality and biodiversity during extreme weather events.

ZLC’s principal contribution to this work will be in the creating of a comprehensive Risk Assessment Methodology to support the emergency management modules mentioned earlier. We will be categorizing risks using data from historical weather records and events to populate established taxonomies from international and global authorities and operators, and integrating assessments of new weather-related risks (or those that are assuming new importance) and projections of future climatic conditions into existing categories to create a responsive and dynamic framework. We will be developing methods of assessing the interdependencies and cascade effects of disruptive events across port and logistics operations. A study of the socio-economics involved will help map and prioritize potential impacts, and the methodology will address not just the resilience of the system, but the safety of the people and facilities involved. Work will be done to select appropriate social and economic KPIs, and developing methodologies such as cost-benefit analyses, and for monitoring. These will enable users of the digital twin to make appropriate investment decisions.

From risk assessment we can proceed to vulnerability analysis to identify points where infrastructure has weaknesses relative to the identified risks. Understanding of risk and vulnerability, and scenario-based simulations, will be incorporated in SAFAR’s digital twin for port operations.

ZLC will also, of course, be contributing to the evaluation and impact assessment of the pilot demonstrations and replication projects.

For further information please contact [email protected]