Climate change will impact port infrastructure in the coming decades

A scientific publication led by the academic from the University of Valparaíso and researcher from the ANID CIGIDEN Center, Patricio Winckler, addressed the impact of climate on the operating conditions of seven large state ports in Chile, a system that plays a strategic role for our integration with the world, since it transfers approximately 90% of international trade.

As a whole, the Chilean port system is made up of 28 major ports, 19 of which are exposed to the Pacific Ocean. During tidal waves, port operations at these ports are suspended to ensure the safety of ships, cargo and workers. This phenomenon, however, has been little studied to date, even though the costs associated with port closures amounted to 345 million dollars for the national economy in 2020 alone.

The recent study “Impacts in ports on a tectonically active coast for climate-driven projections under the RCP 8.5 scenario: 7 Chilean ports under scrutiny”, published in the scientific journal Coastal Engineering Journal, aims precisely at understanding how climate change would affect the system port.

Specifically, Winckler, together with the UV ocean civil engineers, Javiera Mora and César Esparza, the UV Ocean Civil Engineering professor Manuel Contreras-López, and academics from the UC and the University of Davis, calculated the impact on port operations due to eventual port closures and the effects that swells and sea levels can generate on port infrastructure under a pessimistic climate change scenario (RCP 8.5).

· Historical evidence The study begins by showing that port closures amounted to 17,153 hours in the ports analyzed between 2008 and 2018, which implied annual losses of 18 million dollars only for dockage and cargo transfer services in the cases analyzed. These values ​​do not consider the costs associated with the entire logistics chain of merchandise transport and, in short, translates into an increase in prices. “In just one decade, port closures increased from 17 hours in 2008 to 3,022 hours in 2018 in all the sites analyzed, which could be associated with an increase in the frequency of storm surges and greater demands to guarantee the safety of the ports. maneuvers of the large container ships that arrive in Chile”, explains Patricio Winckler. The analysis also shows that, although the northern ports are quite far from the wave generation areas in the South Pacific Ocean, they were the most affected, with 310, 100 and 1,088 hours per year for Arica, Iquique and Antofagasta, respectively. . Ports located in the central and southern regions of Chile, in contrast, had comparatively less downtime.

· Port operational conditionsTo assess the effects associated with climate change on port operations, the team calculated the wave climate for a historical period (1985-2004), mid-century (2026-2045) and end of the century (2081-2100), with a generation model for the entire Pacific. According to the Valparaíso University expert, this statistic was then transferred to each port using spectral models that rescue coastal propagation processes, where downtime was calculated by comparing wave heights with minimum criteria that allow access maneuvers. , mooring and permanence of ships in the mooring sites. The results show that some ports would reduce and others would increase downtime for mid-century projections due to local effects. Thus, operating conditions would deteriorate in the ports of Iquique and Antofagasta, would improve slightly in Valparaíso and San Antonio, and would improve significantly in San Vicente. Arica and Coquimbo would not experience relevant changes. “By the end of the century, however, all ports would experience an improvement in operational conditions, since, with climate change, the average waves will be generated further south, reaching the coasts of central and northern Chile, with less Energy. That translates into a reduction in the expected number of port closures and an associated economic benefit,” explains Winckler. The CIGIDEN expert complements that in the next 30 or 40 years, the climate system will be displaced to the south and the waves, on average, will reach the central zone with a little less energy. “That could be probabilistically beneficial, because the amount of swell could eventually decrease, which could lead to an improvement in the operational conditions of some ports.”

· Structural damageFrom the point of view of port infrastructure, Winckler warns, we are going to experience a rise in sea level which, combined with tidal waves, will result in a greater overpass and therefore greater structural damage to shelter works, which meet the function of reducing the action of the waves and, eventually, the wind of the port works. “This generates economic losses associated with the repair and lost profits. In addition, the overcoming of the waves would reduce the safety of pedestrians on seafront promenades and of workers in port areas”, he warns. The CIGIDEN expert indicates that the preventive maintenance and repair of existing works should be a priority for State agencies and concessionaires: “We must review those structures that are very old and have been hit by large earthquakes, tsunamis and tidal waves in Chile and Based on this, define adaptation measures”. The engineer concludes by exhorting the world of academia and consultancy to abandon the traditional design procedures for port infrastructure and incorporate climate change in the definition of the design conditions for future works.

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