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Energy & Environment
WFAE reporter David Boraks explores how the way we live influences climate change and its impact across the Carolinas. You also can read additional national and international climate news.

Imagining The Effects Of Climate Change On Ports And Shipping

Port of Wilmington
North Carolina Ports
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The port of Wilmington and other ports around the world could be inundated more often as sea levels rise.

What would happen if climate change severely disrupted global supply chains? How would it affect shipping ports like Charleston and Wilmington, which are vital to the economy of the Carolinas?

We got a glimpse of that scenario last year when the coronavirus pandemic slowed global shipping to a crawl. Supply chains were broken. There weren't enough shipping containers moving from port to port. And we saw shortages of goods. In some ways, it was a preview of a global business breakdown that could happen as rising sea levels, severe weather and other aspects of climate change advance, said climate writer and logistics expert Simon Keeble.

"If you don't have logistics, you don't have global supply chains. Therefore, nothing works. Nothing. So, modern man is completely dependent on logistics and we take it for granted," Keeble said in an interview this week.

A Problem We Need To Address

It's a sobering thought, about a world likely to be turned upside down by rising temperatures and sea levels. Keeble, who is based in Davidson, runs a web news service called Logistics2030.eu. He thinks governments are woefully behind in addressing climate change. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are great at spreading the word about climate change, but their messages seem to fall on deaf ears, he said.

"There doesn't seem to be any evidence, really, that politicians are prepared to recognize what the scientists and the NGO community are saying, which is quite dramatic," Keeble said. "So then you're left with the business community, which has a vested interest in survival."

Keeble targets his coverage of climate change toward the shipping industry, which he believes among all business sectors has the best chance of bringing the planet to its senses. His site is not just a news service, but a forum where business leaders, their employees and their stakeholders can discuss and share information about the climate crisis - and solutions.

The Future Of Carolinas' Ports

Climate change is already a threat to shipping and there are plenty of projections about how bad it might get. Take Wilmington and Charleston, for example. Hurricanes always cause problems for these two big ports. But what Keeble calls "sunny day flooding" from climate-induced higher tides and sea-level rise will also become an increasing nuisance in those cities, and could threaten the ports.

He points to a 2019 report by Swiss-based insurer Zurich in the wake of Hurricane Florence, which inundated Wilmington. Besides outlining the damage from Florence and potential threats from future big storms, the report also looks at "sunny day flooding" from the Cape Fear River.

"It basically shows what they conclude is the future of Wilmington," Keeble said. "And they basically say, there isn't one."

A Dire Outlook

In fact, that report notes that in 30 years, downtown Wilmington will have at least 70 days of high-tide flooding per year. "So if I'm a business person, I'm thinking why would I continue to have my business in a place that is going to be under water for 70 days a year," Keeble said.

North Carolina's Climate Risk Assessment and Resilience Plan published in 2020 outlined the risks for ports at Wilmington and Morehead City as well as inland port facilities in Charlotte and elsewhere. They face climate-related threats from coastal erosion, extreme heat that could limit workers' ability to work outside, flooding and storm surges, and increasingly intense hurricanes and thunderstorms, with high winds.

Charleston faces a similar future. Charleston harbor flooded the peninsula at high tide on 68 days in 2020 and a record 89 days in 2019, according to NOAA. Seven of the top 10 years have been in the past decade. The Zurich analysts gave Charleston high marks for taking climate change seriously. The city has a climate action plan and is now working with surrounding counties on how to react to the threats. Still, high tides keep rising, and there's talk of a new sea wall.

Threats From Melting Ice

Together, the Greenland and Antarctic Ice Sheets contain more than 99 percent of the freshwater ice on Earth.
National Snow and Ice Data Center
Together, the Greenland and Antarctic Ice Sheets contain more than 99 percent of the freshwater ice on Earth.

The changes in flood risk so far have been mostly incremental, and it's easy to think we can adapt. But there are even bigger risks, Keeble said: melting and potential collapse of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, which make up a majority of the earth's ice cover. When that happens - and scientists think it will - it will be devastating, Keeble said.

That threat is also there in North Carolina's 2020 Climate Risk Assessment: "It is virtually certain that sea level along the North Carolina coast will continue to rise due to expansion of ocean water from warming and melting of ice on land, such as the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets."

If the Greenland ice sheet completely melts, scientists believe global sea levels would rise about 20 feet. If the Antarctic ice sheet melts, it could raise the sea level by 200 feet. That's according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado.

Says Keeble: "That'll be enough to flood every port city in the world."

An Irreversible Trend?

A global increase in temperatures is already melting those glaciers. The recent report from the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change notes that global temperatures have risen 1.1 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels. The goal is to keep warming under 2.0 degrees (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). At that point, melting can't be reversed, Keeble said, and levels will continue rising for decades.

He is not optimistic that humans will make the changes necessary to reverse the trend. "Scientists are jumping up and down and saying, 'You've got to do something about this.' And everybody says, 'I'll buy another SUV.'"

A documentary tells the story: If you want to learn more about how the Antarctic and Greenland glaciers affect sea levels and how climate change is affecting biodiversity, Keeble recommends "Breaking Boundaries: The Science of Our Planet" (2021, 1:14). The documentary hosted by Sir David Attenborough and scientist Johan Rockström is on Netflix. Keeble and I were talking about it and we recalled the documentary that got many people thinking about climate change - Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth" (2006, 1:58). Hard to believe it's been 15 years since then.

This was first published in WFAE's Climate News newsletter.

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