adaptation / climate change

Can the Port of Southampton weather the coming storms of climate change?


Image: Louis Vest/Flickr Creative Commons

From exporting wool to importing iPads, the Port of Southampton has been central to the region’s economy for over a thousand years. Will future climate change impacts threaten this long maritime history?

  • The port employs 15,000 people and has a turnover of £700 million per year
  • More extreme weather events can mean damage and closures
  • New study on impacts of climate change on UK ports looks at vulnerabilities & resilience

By Esmé Adam (née Flegg)

You may not realise it but ports, and the work that they do, are the lifeblood of the UK. Without them, the way we live our lives would be very different. That’s because a staggering 95% of all goods that enter our country come via ships – this includes food, clothing, fuel, electricals – most of the items in your home. If we relied on what we imported through the Channel Tunnel and by air we would be well stocked in expensive, delicate, items like jewellery – but we would not be able to put dinner on the table for our children.


Image: Erica Zabowski/Flickr Creative Commons

Future-proofing ports, such as Southampton, is vital to maintain this flow of goods, but is also important in terms of our city’s economy. The turnover of the port and associated activities is in the region of £700 million per year. In addition, 15,000 people are employed by the port, or businesses supported by its operations.

A safe harbour?
Bad weather ranging from fog to storm surges and windstorms can potentially have severe consequences for our ports and the cargo they move. Fog can stop vessels being able to dock, or goods moved; and storm surges can flood a port, damaging infrastructure.

In early December 2010 disruptions to the port were widely reported on the news, as it was feared that Christmas in the South would have to be celebrated without presents when snow and ice forced the port to close threatening a shortage of toys in the shops.

Disruptions to “business as usual” in ports such as Southampton tend to be fairly rare; and the experienced staff are usually able to resume operations within a few hours of an event dying down. The port has a number of strategies in place to protect its staff an infrastructure; from stopping ships from entering or leaving dock if fog is too thick, through to moving their container cranes to a safe place so they are not knocked over in high winds.


Image: Darren Puttock/Flickr Creative Commons

Stemming the tide of climate change impacts
With climate change, ports will have to contend with rising sea-level, greater extremes in temperature and changing storminess. Not only could these climatic shifts mean that our ports need to pause operations more frequently, but also increase the risks of damage to port infrastructure and equipment, having serious costs in both time and money to get the port back up and running.

The Port of Southampton is very climate change aware, and has employed a consultancy firm to carry out a number of studies into the future challenges it will face, and how best to prepare. It is making a clear example that by carefully preparing its business against climate change they can reduce the grip of changing extreme weather events on its operations. However, a great deal is still not known.

New research that’s making waves
My research helps fill in the gaps in our knowledge of how climate change will affect ports, and so better arm port decision-makers against future challenges. The first step of the study built a database of how the UK’s resilience and vulnerability to extreme events (caused by either adverse weather or the actions of people) has changed since the 1950s. A news report was published highlighting the most important discoveries:

  • The number of people who lost their lives, or suffered life-changing injuries, during extreme events in ports has declined dramatically. This is because technology has become much safer, and health and safety regulations are much stricter.
  • Ports, such as Southampton, used to be vulnerable to storm surges, but by building sea defences and using better weather forecasts they are now much less of a problem.
  • Changing technology, such as using massive gantry cranes to remove containers from vessels, has created a new risk for ports. Tall cranes are vulnerable to high winds, which both limit what conditions they can work in, and can also blow them over.

Image: Mark Curzon/Flickr Creative Commons

Next steps
Building on my initial results the next steps will look at how well a number of ports, including Southampton, are prepared for the challenges that climate change may throw at them, and advise them on the best way to defend themselves for the future. This vital assessment will help to ensure that our docks need to close less frequently due to bad weather, and that any port will be safer in a storm.

“There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood,
Leads on to Fortune.
Omitted, all the voyage of your life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat
And we must take the current when it serves
Or lose our Venture.”

Brutus in JULIUS CAESAR (Act 4, Scene 3, 218-224)
by William Shakespeare

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