Can we create climate-resilient coastlines?

As the nation with the world’s longest coastline, Canada’s ports and marine ecosystem is rich in both environmental and economic benefits. But as climate risks intensify, unforeseen crises like COVID-19 make waves on a global scale, extreme weather events become more frequent and severe, and sea levels continue to rise, how can we protect this critical link in our supply chain?

Our global trading partners have long recognized that Canada is rich in a diverse range of natural resources. But winning the geological lottery when it comes to oil, ore deposits and fresh water isn’t our only location-based source of major economic benefit. Canada is also the nation with the world’s longest coastline, with a stunning 243,042 km of mainland and offshore coasts.

Abundant coastal access and development has naturally supported a thriving ports and marine sector. In 2017, ports and marine shipping carried almost $90 billion (17 per cent) of Canada's exports to world markets, and brought in $110 billion (21 per cent) of Canada's total imports.

Ports are a critical link in the supply chain, and play a role in everything from shipping and logistics to natural resources firms and businesses of all sizes. More broadly, coastal regions often support dynamic and varied ecosystems, both environmentally and economically for the surrounding communities.

However, alongside the plentiful opportunities of our ports and coastal regions come some very significant climate risks. Coastal erosion and submersion, more severe and frequent extreme weather events, decreasing sea ice in winter months to resist against wind and wave action, rising sea levels and seasonal flooding are just some of the foreseeable challenges that the sector must contend with.

The ports and marine environment is very distinct, and this is no less important when it comes to climate change impacts. Flooding or extreme storm events don’t just threaten the infrastructure — they also threaten supply chains that carry many essential resources of our daily lives, as well as the public safety of the surrounding communities.

Can we create resilient, adaptive solutions to climate impacts when even our best models and projections sometimes leave us with more questions than answers?


Climate risks

As the scientific community increases its ability to predict processes like sea rise, we are still challenged by the fact that no one has a direct, one-size-fits-all answer. Although modelling and projections evolve as our knowledge increases, and are highly dependant and changeable based on specific regional differences, there are some overarching trends that experts do agree on. For one thing, we are likely to see a decrease in sea ice coverage on average, but the effects will not be evenly distributed over geographical regions or ecosystems. We will probably see more coastal erosion as a by-product of rising sea levels, but these sea levels won’t change uniformly; our eastern and western coasts will see rising sea levels, while the arctic and Great Lakes coastal regions may actually see lower sea and lake levels.

Changing sea levels presents significant challenges that are more far-reaching than one might realize. There are impacts on the structural integrity of existing coastlines and flood risks, but there can also be heavy impacts on navigation, shipping routes, and the ecological balance of the surrounding environment. Rising sea levels change the distribution of fresh water in the surrounding rivers, which can impact land irrigation and even our drinking water.

img-Port in a Storm-Erosion

As you might imagine, these complex chain reactions of climate consequences come with a hefty price tag. We’ve seen the headlines warning of multi-billion dollar damage forecasts for flooding impacts in coastal cities (one recent estimate: $30 billion in damages and 300,000 displaced if flooding concerns are not addressed in the Fraser Valley region of B.C.). And this doesn’t even count the less quantifiable costs, like damage to the surrounding ecological habitats.


Preventative measures

Experts have been increasingly insistent that prevention is key in averting the most costly and damaging impacts of climate change. Encouragingly, there has been a fair amount of federal and provincial funding available for climate change mitigation and adaptation, including through the Emergency Response Fund. However, accessing funding can be an exercise in complexity, as federal funds are put into different streams and there are detailed requirements on how to qualify.

Tools like detailed flood maps and risk maps are helpful, but only if there is the necessary funding to deliver and upgrade key infrastructure like dikes, sea walls, revetments and breakwaters. And although we are seeing more government funding available, that proactive investment is still relatively small compared with the financial impact of major floods we have seen in recent years. Governments and municipalities need to invest more proactively to prepare for the climate impacts that are surely coming our way.


Supply chain impacts

When investing in resilience for our coastal regions, we are also safeguarding the resilience of our supply chains. The port is at the centre of any form of supply chain, and the impacts of a crisis — whether climate-related or otherwise — can send massive shock waves through the daily lives of consumers.

The COVID-19 pandemic is an interesting example of how supply chain disruption may manifest, as we’ve seen supply challenges related to ships coming from China and other parts of the world with important goods. If ships are unable to make their deliveries, whether because of COVID-19 control measures or a flooded port, the ultimate impact is the same: the entire supply chain in Canada is interrupted.

A supply chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and ports present some particular challenges because there are no viable alternatives. We simply don’t have the capacity to transfer large amounts of shipping cargo to planes, trains or trucks.

img-Port in a Storm

Once the supply chain is delayed or interrupted, we begin to see shortages of those goods in the consumer market, which drives up prices. There are also economic impacts for the shipping workers who are suddenly cut off from their jobs. However, there are mitigation measures we can take that are being tested through the COVID-19 crisis right now, many of which involve construction of temporary physical assets. 


Innovative solutions, resilient coastlines

While COVID-19 will be an interesting exercise in creating urgent adaptive and most likely temporary measures, climate-specific challenges call for long-term, innovative solutions. Measures like raising the elevation of port facilities to mitigate flooding, building seawalls and breakwaters to protect against large waves, and raising the road and rail levels connecting to the ports are all measures that many experts currently recommend. Relocation according to flood maps and risk maps is also an important measure, and moving key infrastructure away from the hazard zones can go far toward minimizing vulnerability. Insulating storage areas to protect against water damage is also a recommendation, so that even if floodwaters creep closer than anticipated, goods are still stored in a secure space.

However, even with a list of strong recommendations and an unlimited budget, designers still need to accommodate for uncertainty in design. There is a high degree of ambiguity when it comes to climate projections, so our designs need to be innovative and flexible enough to prepare for a range of future scenarios. The infrastructure we build today should be Future Ready®, so that when it needs to be adapted 30 or 40 years from now, we have already accounted for that in our original plans.

Another facet to truly adaptive, resilient coastlines is to build with nature — not against it. In addition to relocating key infrastructure and improving coastal defenses like seawalls and breakwaters, nature-based solutions enhance the resilience of existing ecosystems by working with the surrounding ecology to create buffer zones along our coasts that can mitigate the risks of climate change. Integrating green space with wetlands, vegetation and green infrastructure can create flood plains that can more easily absorb sea flooding with minimal impact to the surrounding neighbourhoods. New York provides one example of what these buffer zones might look like. Most of the time, these multifunctional buffer zones function as a community greenspace with park areas, bike paths and other community assets, overlaying the protective purpose with an element of placemaking and social wellbeing.

Ultimately, these solutions benefit each layer of their ecosystem — from the communities they serve and the economies they support to the natural ecology that they respect. 


For more information about WSP’s Ports and Marine expertise, please visit our Service Page or  explore our Coastal Brochure.


Our Experts

Martijn van den Berk
Nicolas Guillemette
Jordan Mattieu
Sundar Premasiri

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