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Rise in sea levels threatens California ports

Because of global warming, ocean levels are expected to increase by 16 inches over the next 40 years, causing flooding and endangering facilities throughout the state.

December 10, 2009|By Ronald D. White
  • The Mol Elbe from Japan is docked at the Port of Los Angeles, where cargo container wharves are about 15 feet above sea level.
The Mol Elbe from Japan is docked at the Port of Los Angeles, where cargo container… (Ringo H.W. Chiu / For The…)

Global warming and a resulting rise in sea levels present a direct threat to the world's seaports -- and many of California's harbors are nowhere near ready, state officials say.

Sea levels in California are expected to increase 16 inches over the next 40 years, causing flooding and endangering facilities throughout the state, according to a report by the California State Lands Commission. By 2100, the ocean could rise as much as 55 inches, the report said.

Most of the 40 ports and shipping hubs surveyed by the state said they were not prepared for the rise in sea levels.

At the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, rising water could damage ground-level facilities and toxic-waste storage sites, said Geraldine Knatz, executive director of the Port of Los Angeles, the state's largest.

In Oakland, the site of the state's third-biggest port, higher water could cause flooding and impede the movement of goods on highways and by rail, officials said in response to questions in the survey.

"We need to start planning for these things now, so that we're not caught having to do a lot of remedial repair work 15 years to 20 years into the future," Knatz said in an interview Wednesday.

The state's Sea Level Rise Preparedness report comes as port officials from around the globe are planning to attend the United Nations climate change summit in Copenhagen this week and next.

Knatz, who expects to meet with officials of other harbors and discuss shipping issues at the conference, said the nation's ports must be leaders in crafting a response to rising sea levels.

"We need to deal with these issues at the international level more quickly that we normally do. We need to be out ahead of the regulators and set a high bar," she said.

Knatz and officials from at least six of the world's biggest seaports will be presented with widely conflicting assessments of the potential for damage and economic disaster from rising sea levels.

Among the conference attendees will be representatives of the Port of Rotterdam, Netherlands, which is Europe's biggest and lies below sea level. Dutch officials are planning bigger and higher sea barriers even though the port already lies several miles behind a series of dikes and has some of the world's most comprehensive sea rise defense systems.

According to the California report, which was released this week, higher sea levels would cause flooding up and down the coast. Responding to the state's survey questions, Newport Beach officials said there could be "flooding over most of our bulkheads when coupled with storm surge."

The San Diego Unified Port District said a 55-inch rise was likely to result in substantial effects and flooding of some facilities in both urban and wildlife areas, according to the report.

Santa Barbara officials reported that amount of rise "would basically flood or inundate the entire area, destroying most all facilities as currently constructed."

To help prepare for the sea level increase locally, the Port of Los Angeles plans to take part in a Rand Corp. study of sea level rising. Because ships have become bigger over the years, the port's cargo container wharves are already about 15 feet above sea level. The port's oldest docks are 12 feet above sea level.

Long Beach has used fill from major construction projects to elevate some of its port facilities 10 feet above sea level, said Al Moro, Long Beach's chief harbor engineer.

Experts said some preparations would come naturally from the need to service ships of increasing size and height.

"The big, modern ports should be able to handle small to moderate increases in sea levels," Asaf Ashar, head of the Washington office of the National Ports and Waterways Institute.

A far more alarming assessment was released last week by the Munich, Germany, office of the World Wildlife Fund, the Munich-based insurer Allianz and the Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia.

That study suggested that too little attention had been focused on the combination of rising water levels in conjunction with other events, such as hurricane damage along the U.S. East Coast.

In the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana region, sea level rise could expose $96.5 billion of infrastructure to damage, the WWF-Allianz report said. It said cities like New York could face damages in the hundreds of billions of dollars if rising sea level is combined with hurricane storm surges.

For its survey, the California State Lands Commission used research from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, the U.S. Geological Survey, Santa Clara University, the California Department of Boating and Waterways and the Hydrologic Research Center.

Of 104 ports and shipping hubs contacted by the state for its survey, just 40 responded -- and most of those appear to be unprepared, officials said.

"The majority of the respondents have not yet begun to comprehensively consider the impacts of sea level rise," the report said.

State Lands Commission officials said ongoing assessments of preparedness would be crucial in the coming years. They noted that the California Climate Change Center has estimated that nearly half a million people, thousands of miles of roads and railways, and major ports, airports, power plants and wastewater treatment plants are at risk if a 55-inch rise in sea level is combined with a once-in-100-years flood event.

"This is going to be part of a continuing battle and a continuing planning effort," said Paul Thayer, executive officer of the California State Lands Commission.

"One of our goals was to take the pulse of California's maritime industry. It's important that we start working on this. We have some time to do the right planning, but we have to use that time wisely."

ron.white@latimes.com

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