Climate change poses a significant threat to ports globally, and especially in Mexico. This report highlights the hazards that could impact on the throughput, reliability, and profitability of ports, and considers the measures that might be taken to mitigate the negative effects of extreme weather events.
The following analysis is based on two future scenarios developed by the intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and follows a business-as-usual scenario. In scenario RCP 8.5, global emissions will remain at the same level. Added is a scenario called SSP3 7.0, which is a socioeconomic scenario that expects larger parts of the developing world to prosper with high greenhouse gas emissions. These two scenarios are homogenous reflections of the current situation in the fight against climate change.
Mexican trade goods are diverse, and range from commodities carried in bulk to natural resources such as oil and, soon, liquefied gas, to containerised goods. The last of these represents the most significant stake. The five major container ports cover more than 90 per cent of the total volume of container handling. Therefore, I will use the following ports as representative locations for a Mexican vulnerability assessment (see figure 2): Manzanillo (3,069.07k twenty-foot equivalents), Lazaro Cárdenas (1,318.73k TEU), Veracruz (1,144.16k TEU), Altamira (877.4k TEU), and Ensenada (337.74k TEU) 1.
As data for multiple ports appears to be incomplete for the period prior to 2000, the comparison is limited to the time frame from 2000 to the present. All locations suffer heavy disaster penetration with a frequency of reoccurrence of 1.045 natural disasters each year. Veracruz leads the annual disaster accumulation with a rate of 1.77. The state suffers from a high number of floods as well as storms, which are prone to triggering severe floods.
Next, there was medium risk of drought events and wildfires. Lazaro Cárdenas on the Mexican west coast mainly suffered from the non-climate-related hazard of earthquakes, followed by a high hazard of storms and floods. Freezing temperatures are last. The port and its state of Michoacan experience 0.68 disaster events annually on average.
Manzanillo and Altamira share the same penetration rate of disaster recurrence. Manzanillo is significantly prone to tropical storms and was hit by 13 such events. Second are earthquakes (resulting from the same conditions as Lazaro Cárdenas) on three occasions, and lastly are a flood, one volcanic eruption (due to ashes) and the same extreme freezing temperatures as Lazaro Cárdenas experienced.
Natural disasters hit Manzanillo’s state, Colima, 0.86 times a year. On the other hand, Altamira experiences severe flooding events, as well as storms. Although to a lesser degree, Altamira is comparable to its southern neighbour Veracruz. The dominance of Veracruz might be owed to the greater territorial stretch along the coast of the state of Veracruz compared to the state of Tamaulipas. Beyond the high risk of storms and floods, Tamaulipas suffered from a drought and a wildfire disaster, indicating a medium risk for these events.
Ensenada experienced less than one disaster a year, with a tally of 0.682, and 16 events from 2000 to 2022. Storms represent the highest accumulation of disasters, with eight events. Medium risk also comes from floods (2), extremely low temperatures (2), earthquakes (1), one drought and one wildfire (see table 1).
For operability with the linked climate-change-related hazards, historic exposure to hazards is summarised in a visualised table (see table 2).
The following part focuses on the change in climate conditions. Therefore, climate patterns that triggered the above disasters are considered, and their future development forecast is assessed.
Change in Regional Climate
The general change in the different climate regions is assessed for the second pillar of risk analysis. The Köppen-Geiger Climate Classification System is applied. This was first developed by Wladimir Köppen in 1884 and revised in 1940 by climatologist Rudolf Geiger (see figure 3).
First, the current climate zones for the relevant local regions are evaluated. This corresponds to the interval from 1991 to 2020, which is accessible at the climate change knowledge portal of the World Bank 2. The process is repeated in the same manner with an interval from 2071 to 2100, where data is extracted from a projection from Beck et al. (2018) 3. The underlying climate scenario is RCP8.5 (see table 3).
We can observe a (partial) change of climate types in four of the five port locations. The tendencies all point towards a deepening of heat and drought, with fewer precipitation scenarios. The most significant jump of change is shown by the area surrounding the port of Altamira in the state of Tamaulipas. Currently, the area is classified as equatorial savannah with dry winters. In the projections, the circumstances match the arid hot steppe, reflected by a climate too hot for forests and larger accumulations of trees to develop. From 2080 to 2100, the average temperature in the region will rise 3.3°C, with the highest maximum temperatures (mean) of approximately 38.17°C during June-August.
Altamira is already exposed to extreme heat, with a probability of extreme heat events occurring once in five years. Extreme heat is considered to be when the temperature exceeds body temperature. As the described maximum temperature during the summer will be above this 37°C, enduring annual extreme heat events are highly probable.
At present, the probability of drought events in Altamira is low, with a 1 per cent chance of a drought event in the next 10 years. Drought risk for the time frame of 2080-2100 under SSP7.0 is high. This will accelerate tree mortality, which enhances the adaptation process to the new climate type.
Manzanillo suggests a similar pattern at a slower pace. The area is also shifting from equatorial savannah with dry winters to an arid hot steppe. Temperature increases 2.75°C in 2080-2100, with an average temperature of 29.054°C, the highest value obtained in the mean data set. The maximum mean temperature is 35.55°C. Manzanillo has a medium EHE probability with a 25 per cent chance of occurrence during the next five years.
Still, climate change creates the potential for wildfires, which are already high in risk (> 50 per cent/year). This setting increases the general vulnerability against exogenous extreme weather events such as storms and earthquakes. A medium probability of river or coastal floods and a high probability of landslides are realities.
With the enduring heat and less precipitation, those will become imminent in the period under consideration.
The city of Veracruz currently connects two climate zones: on the one hand, there is an equatorial monsoon climate with relatively warm temperatures with high precipitation and a short dry season and, on the other, there is a warm temperate climate of full humidity with a cool summer.
The temperature rise is forecast to be +3.38°C, implying the most significant temperature rise in the sample. The attained mean temperature is predicted to stay comparably mild at 25.026°C. The same goes for maximum mean temperature, although this rises 3.75°C.
Nevertheless, EHEs are classified as medium, with an event at least once within the next five years. The risk will become high in 2100. The wet climatic constellation diminishes the exposure to droughts. River floods are highly improbable (with a probability of 1:1,000), whereas coastal floods are of medium risk, with a 20 per cent chance in the next 10 years. Research from Zúñiga and Magaña (2020) reports high extreme precipitation hazards of more than 200 mm daily 4.
Furthermore, they found a growing trend of extreme precipitation events since the 1990s. The increased precipitation and rising temperatures could put pressure on landslide probability as slopes are altered and bedrock stability erodes.
Ensenada experiences a relatively cold, dry climate (mean p.a. temperature is below 18°C). This changes by 2080-2100, mostly in temperature, as it develops relatively warm and dry weather with an average temperature above 18°C. Forests cannot grow, but it is wet enough to maintain grasslands. Although facing the coolest centigrade temperature of all its peers, with an annual mean of 20.86°C, EHE and bushland-fire hazards are high. The mean temperature rise will be 2.85°C over today’s average. Only flood hazard is relevant, as coastal floods and landslides are missing due to the altitude.
Lazaro Cárdenas does not experience much change in climate zones as the Pacific has a heavy influence on the climate of the region. The region is characterised by an Aw climate, which indicates an overall warm setting with a short dry season in winter. With a temperature increase of 2.97°C up to 28.052° and the highest average maximum temperature of 34.14°C (+3.24°C), the shift is quite notable. This data is also derived for inland Michoacan, which suggests a false lead. Putting focus only on Lazaro Cárdenas, EHE events are at a medium hazard level, with a possible occurrence of 25 per cent within the next five years. Wildfires, on the other hand, face high levels. Coastal and river floods appear with a medium probability, whereas landslides show a high likelihood.
Sea Level Rise
Sea level rise is globally set to rise 15 mm annually from 2100 onwards under RCP8.5 5. Direct numbers for the effect on Mexico are somewhat hard to calculate, although the Mexican government projects sea-level rise to affect all coastal states. However, some are hit harder than others 6 (see figure 4).The observed sea-level rise trend is 2.8 mm a year. Despite a significant dip in 2012, attributed to “cooler temperatures associated with a negative phase of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation”, the trend has increased over the last 30 years 7. The World Bank’s estimate for the underlying scenario in 2100 is an increase of 0.67 to 0.75 metres compared to 2000 levels (data).
Sea-level rise is especially alarming for the port of Altamira, as its geographical environment is exceptionally prone to coastal flooding, as figure 5 shows.
Even though the port might be sufficiently elevated, on-and-off carriage from port sites might be impossible given a flooded transport system. World Bank estimates of the mean sea level in the Gulf of Mexico are 0.7 to 0.86 metres above 2000 levels (data).
Mexico is set geographically between mid and tropical latitudes and has to contend with long coastlines. The combination favours inter-tropical convergence during the tropical season. In both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, tropical storms follow a frequent annual pattern. The Pacific region experiences the yearly storm season from May to November. For the Gulf of Mexico, the storm season lasts from June to November.
In total, the NOAA has counted 798 tropical storms since 1842 that affected Mexican territory. Of these, 676 were solely tropical storms, 364 were hurricanes from categories one to three, and 48 were categories 4 to 5 (see figure 6).
As the two coasts experience different meteorological behaviours, they are treated separately. After the West Pacific, the north-east Pacific, which includes the Mexican west coast, leads in the annual frequency of tropical cyclones globally 8. In the period 1966 to 2015, 125 tropical storms were recorded in the north-west Pacific, 53 per cent being categorised as hurricanes 9.
Under the influence of climate change, tropical storms and associated natural hazards are expected to rise in severity. The annual accumulation of tropical cyclones is, on average, 8.8 and, for tropical storms, 7.4 10.
Even though tropical cyclones are unpredictable, science found patterns that indicate that large numbers of storms are migrating polewards. On average, this occurs at a pace of 50 km each decade for all tropical storms. In the past, they tended to terminate before the 30° line of latitude, as a result of the cold California current. This trend vanishes as water temperature and global tropical atmospheric circulation rise 10.
In terms of differing meteorological systems, the following part is separated into West and East Coast.
As tropical storms move further north, the state of Baja California and port of Ensenada are projected to experience an increase in storm hits. These pose a hazard to the port facilities. In the last 180 years, only five storms have hit the port of Ensenada within a 60-nautical-mile radius. Only two tropical storms hit Ensenada directly.
Disruptions in port activities are common due to tropical storms 11. Specifically, solely direct hits, where the storms approached the port directly, led to damage in the past. Of the 15 tropical storms recorded by NOAA in history, 11 are counted as direct hits . The most threatened infrastructure is the PEMEX dock, while the container port is on the inside of the port and thus more protected. Manzanillo might experience more intense penetration from tropical storms in the future as these tend to move further north.
As Lazaro Cárdenas and Manzanillo are closely located, a difference is observable for exposure to tropical storms. Storms have hit the port 58 times since 1842 within a 60-nautical-mile radius, 15 of which were direct hits. Lazaro Cárdenas appears to be close to the epicentre of a multitude of East Pacific storms. The port consists of outer facilities directly exposed to the Pacific (PEMEX and Accelor Mittal Steel Terminals) and inner facilities that are more protected. The port might experience less penetration by tropical storms than in prior decades, although these tropical storms might become more extreme.
Veracruz and Altamira, located in the Gulf of Mexico, are exposed to hurricanes and tropical cyclones during the spring and summer months. Occurrences in the Gulf of Mexico often originate in the North Atlantic basin and are known for their catastrophic consequences. On average, a hurricane in the US causes US$10 billion worth of damage 12. Various studies found a clear trend of increasing intensities of tropical cyclones in the Atlantic basin that are linked to circumstances triggered by climate change 12. 13.
The port of Veracruz has a storm record of 31 storms since 1842. Three of those were direct hits. Port infrastructure is well protected against waves. Multiple piers were constructed to hinder waves from entering directly.
Altamira is situated in a region prone to hits by tropical storms. There have been 64 tropical storms with 18 hurricanes within a 60-nautical-mile radius since 1984. Five of them were hurricanes of category three or higher. Twelve tropical storms were categorised as direct hits.
With the help of climate zone analysis, according to Köppen-Geiger, it can be assumed that climate change has had such a substantial impact on the port regions under discussion that the climate categorisation has changed for four of the five regions. Through all changes, a pattern of decreases in precipitation and increases in temperature takes place. Altamira is characterised in the future by extreme heat in summer months, a sharp decline in precipitation, and a high probability of drought.
The port of Manzanillo follows a similar pattern at a lower speed. Manzanillo will experience a medium extreme heat threat in 2100, with an average temperature above 29°C. This leads to a medium drought and a high threat of wildfire. Flood hazards will decrease as a result of shrinking precipitation. This excludes coastal floods as sea-level rise appears on the Pacific side with 0.67 to 0.75 metres.
The biggest threat for Manzanillo is tropical storms, which are expected to continue to occur, but with increased severity. The levels of direct hits might decrease, as tropical storms tended to move polewards in the immediate past.
Lazaro Cárdenas is the only port whose region does not experience a change of climate, although the temperature for the full state rises sharply. Extreme heat events are still at medium risk and will continue to be so. Precipitation decreases, leading to a lower hazard of droughts and floods. Lazaro Cárdenas might experience increased impacts from tropical storms (high hazard) for the same reason.
Manzanillo might experience less impact, although rising sea levels will have a similar impact on the port. There is a high hazard of wildfires already, which will rise in the future (high).
Veracruz’s temperatures are rising the strongest in the data set, with an average of +3.38°C. The possibility of extreme heat events and wildfire hazard will be high in the future. Due to high precipitation levels, flooding is a major hazard and will be in the future (high). The hazard of tropical storms will rise, as tropical storms from the Atlantic basin are expected to rise in severity. Sea-level rise is stronger on the Gulf of Mexico side than on the Pacific side, with a maximum of +0.87 metres in 2100.
In the future, Altamira will be characterised by extreme heat in the summer months, a sharp decrease in precipitation, and a high probability of drought. Altamira has a comparable high hazard level of sea-level rise. Altamira’s region is heavily exposed to floods, which will pose a threat not only to the port but also to logistics. On- and off-cargo could be hindered for more extended periods. Although Altamira is prone to being hit by tropical storms, it will experience increases of direct hit impacts of hurricanes of category three and higher (high). Wildfire hazard is high.
In 2100, the port of Ensenada in Baja California will face a high hazard level of extreme heat events. As the eco-zone is already dry, flood risk is low (excluding coastal floods). The sea-level rise hazard (medium) is the same as Manzanillo and Lazaro Cárdenas, with a 0.67 to 0.75 metre rise compared to the 2000 level. The tropical storm hazard is medium nowadays but will rise to high as the tendency to the poles emerges.
Due to arid temperatures and low precipitation, drought events will rise to high hazard levels. Wildfires are very likely and will continue throughout 2100. The indications align with the IPCC expectations of climate change impacts and imply a broader climatic change in Mexico and the Central American and southern North American area (see tables 4, 5 and 6).
The preceding crisis and hazard analysis identified ports’ vulnerabilities to extreme weather events (EWE). The risks should be understood, and the critical elements in the ports should be identified to protect and / or improve them. Successive to the vulnerability analysis, mitigation measures must be taken.
A framework could look like the list below:
- Based on the vulnerability assessment results, ports can develop a plan to address the identified risks. This plan should consider short- and long-term solutions, as well as the potential costs and benefits of each option.
- Implement structural (hard) and non-structural (soft) measures. Structural measures include things like building sea walls or reinforcing existing structures to protect against flooding and erosion. Non-structural measures include updating policies and procedures to better prepare for and respond to climate-related events.
- Engage with the community. Ports can work with local stakeholders, including businesses and residents, to identify and implement adaptation measures that will benefit the community as a whole.
- Consider the economic impacts. Adaptation measures can be expensive; thus, ports should carefully consider the costs and benefits of each option. In some cases, it may be more cost-effective to relocate certain assets or operations rather than try to protect them.
- Monitor and evaluate progress. Regularly monitoring and assessing the effectiveness of adaptation measures can help ports identify areas where additional action may be needed and areas where improvement is being made.
The authors would like to thank Mr Daniel Jahn, Trade Visitor Coordinator, International Affairs Department at the Hamburg Port Authority for the support of the seminar series for Climate Protection at the Leuphana University Lüneburg for many years
About the Authors
Nils Meier is an International Business Graduate from Leuphana University Lüneburg. In his studies, he put focus on the environmental facet of doing business. His particular interest in Latin American markets paired with experience in the shipping industry led him to specialise in climate scenarios for ports.
Roberto Carlos Ambrosio-Lazaro is currently Research Professor with the Electronics Faculty at Meritorious Autonomous University of Puebla (BUAP). His research interests include the developing energy harvesting technology, conversion and storage for renewable sources such as vibrations, solar, and thermal; integration of semiconductor materials for the development of solar cells and sensors; in addition, signal conditioning circuits for sensors and automotive electronic systems.
Michael Palocz-Andresen is a full professor at BUAP Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla. From 2018 to 2021 he worked as a Herder professor supported by the DAAD at the TEC de Monterrey in Mexico. He became a full professor at the University West Hungary 2005-2017. Currently, he is a guest professor at the TU Budapest, the Leuphana University Lüneburg, and at the Shanghai Jiao Tong University. He is a Humboldt scientist and instructor of the SAE International in the USA.
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