Chapter 6.4 – Port Resilience

Authors: Dr. Jean-Paul Rodrigue, Dr. Theo Notteboom and Dr. Athanasios Pallis

For natural and anthropogenic reasons, ports are subject to disruptions that can impair and even stop activities. The adaptive capacity to recover from disruptions defines the resilience of a port.

1. Defining Resilience

The resilience concept is based on the Latin root ‘resilire’ (to leap back or to rebound), which refers to the ability of an entity or system to recover from a disturbance or disruption. There is some level of ambiguity as to the precise meaning of the notion of resilience. The three most commonly used definitions are:

  • Engineering resilience (physical sciences). The ability of a system to return to, or resume, its assumed equilibrium state or configuration following a shock or disturbance. The focus is on resistance to shocks and stability near equilibrium.
  • Ecological resilience (ecological sciences). The scale of shock or disturbance a system can absorb before it is destabilized and moved to another stable state or configuration. Focus is on the ‘far from equilibrium’ behavior of a system.
  • Adaptive resilience (complex adaptive systems theory). The ability of a system to undergo an anticipatory or reactionary reorganization of form and function to minimize the impact of a destabilizing shock. The focus is on the adaptive capability of a system.

From a transportation and port perspective, resilience allows reducing the probability of disruption, and if it occurs, a port will have the ability to mitigate its impacts. Therefore, the following definition is used:

A resilient port (or infrastructure) can cope with shocks, absorb disruptions, quickly recover, and restore operations to a level similar to or even above a baseline and adapt to changing conditions while continuing to develop and transform..

The more important a transportation node or infrastructure is in supporting trade, supply chains, and the regional economy, the more the concept of resilience is relevant to port planning and operations. As ports can be exposed to a wide array of disruptions, it becomes essential to have infrastructures and operations that are able to recover from a disruption in a timely fashion. This implies that a maritime transport system has the capability to learn from past disruptions and adapt accordingly. Still, it must be underlined that more disruptions are not necessarily the outcome of more risks, but of more activity with a similar risk. More proactively, potential disruptions can be anticipated and mitigated. The new system is expected to be more resilient over three core dimensions:

  • Absorptive capacity. The ability of a mode or a terminal to absorb a disruption while maintaining a level of service.
  • Adaptive capacity. The ability to route cargo through different nodes and segments during a disruption in order to maintain a level of service.
  • Restorative capacity. The ability to recover to a level of service similar to, or even above a baseline, prior to the disruption.

Since maritime transport networks are composed of nodes and links, the concept of resilience has several implications for components such as modes, infrastructure, and terminals. Depending on the position of the port in the transport hierarchy, its vulnerability and resilience may have different consequences. The vulnerability of maritime networks has different implications depending on whether the port is a hub or a gateway. Disruptions at a hub will mostly impact maritime shipping networks, while disruptions at a gateway will mostly impact the hinterland. Logistical networks are also vulnerable to disruptions impacting one element of the supply chain and the connected activities that are upstream and downstream.

The resilience concept is often associated with other related key concepts:

  • Agility refers to the speed of the adaption process, such as making fast and seamless changes when faced with disruptions. Rapid response and build-in policies and processes that facilitate change are attributes of an agile entity. An agile supply chain tries to achieve faster delivery and lead time flexibility. It deploys new technologies and methods, utilizes information systems, technologies, and data interchange facilities, integrates the whole business process, and enhances innovations throughout the chain. An agile port company typically relies on a flat organizational structure to speed up information flows between different departments and develops close and trust-based relationships with its customers and suppliers.
  • Flexibility is understood as the ability to respond to change with innovative solutions. Within a port context, a flexible port or port company can be altered with relative ease so as to be functional under new, different, or changing requirements in a cost-effective manner.
  • Lean means a reduction of waste in a system or supply chain. Lean supply chains demand continuous improvement processes that focus on eliminating waste or non-value stops across the chain. Such a lean supply chain leads to superior financial performance for all organizations in the supply chain while reducing redundancy and increasing certain vulnerability aspects. However, reducing redundancies can negatively impact resilience.

2. Shocks and Disruptions Impacting Ports

Disruptions can come from multiple sources, some predictable, some random, and others unexpected. They can be internal to port operations when related to factors under the control of the port, such as breakage of equipment due to improper maintenance, a breach in security, or a lack of security measures. They can also be external to port operations when related to factors outside the control of the port, such as a hurricane or an economic recession. The impacts of predictable disruption, such as a weather event, can be assessed based on past events and their probability at a certain point in time sequence, such as a year. A random disruption is an event that can occur, but the probability of its occurrence cannot be effectively assessed, particularly over a shorter time period.

An unexpected disruption, at times called a Black Swan event, is the outcome of circumstances beyond reasonable expectations considering the information available. The Black Swan concept was first introduced in the finance and managerial world in 2007, just before the major financial events that unfolded in 2008 and 2009. It is an event or occurrence that deviates beyond what is normally expected of a situation, which is extremely difficult to predict. The COVID-19 pandemic is the foremost example of a Black Swan event that had profound and complex ramifications in every aspect of the port and shipping industry and the global supply chains they enable. In hindsight, all Black Swan events seem predictable. Still, in practice, they are very hard to identify and are even so rare that they often change perception relative to the context surrounding the event. The term “crisis” tends to be used afterward to describe these events.

The resilience of a port is embedded within its infrastructure and design. Two types of potential impacts on ports can be underlined. One is disruptive, impairing operations and causing delays, but leaving the infrastructure and equipment intact since the disruption is within design parameters. The other type of impact is damaging, where infrastructure and equipment are damaged and even destroyed since the disruption is above design parameters. Although some infrastructure and equipment may not have been damaged, the damage that has occurred can prevent regular operations until it is repaired.

Port resilience is associated with the structure of maritime shipping networks. These networks are a circuitous nodal hierarchy, implying that services are commonly an arranged sequence of nodes (ports). Some hierarchies are simple, such as point-to-point services, while others can be complex with inter-range services that loop back to the port of origin and are connected to other networks. While point-to-point services reflect bulk shipping, container shipping is organized between deep-sea and feeder services, with transshipment hubs acting as the interface between network hierarchies. The vulnerability of maritime networks involves different considerations depending on whether the node is a hub or a gateway. Disruptions at a hub will mostly impact maritime shipping networks, while disruptions at a gateway will primarily affect the hinterland. This represents the primary consideration with looking at port resilience as to what extent it is related to its foreland or hinterland.

3. Ports and Natural Disruptions

A. Extreme weather events

Like most transportation modes, maritime transportation can be disrupted by extreme weather events. However, ports are among the most resilient infrastructures in the event of weather events. Snowstorms, thunderstorms, and high winds can impair crane operations and may even topple containers, but the chance of infrastructure damage is low. Extreme heat can impair operations by rendering outdoor port work hazardous and can damage superstructures and infrastructures through thermal expansion. The most dramatic weather events are hurricanes, which can shut down port facilities for several days while the water recedes from flooded areas and debris is cleared. Ports located within hurricane risk areas have plans that involve tying down cranes and yard equipment to prevent toppling. Loaded containers can be stacked at safer locations within the yard, while empty container stacks can be stacked down to reduce toppling risks.

The growth of the cruise industry has highlighted the risk of hurricanes, particularly in the Caribbean, which is the world’s largest destination market. Cruise lines tend to offer fewer cruises during the hurricane season, which is between August and November, with peak hurricane activity in September. Since the path of hurricanes can only be accurately predicted within a day or two of their occurrence, cruises are usually not canceled during a hurricane event. Only the port of call sequence can be altered to take in alternatives that are not at risk. The growth of the cruise industry in Asia is also increasing cruise activity in an area prone to hurricanes (typhoons).

B. Geophysical disruptions

Tectonic activity is the source of the most serious geophysical disasters. Earthquakes are a salient form of a geophysical threat since they are difficult to predict but generally occur in areas in the vicinity of tectonic plate boundaries. For ports, this risk is far from being uniform but can be assessed within a reasonable level. For instance, about 100 container ports accounting for 140 million TEUs are located in areas considered high tectonic risks, implying a 20% risk over a 50-year period of exposure to an earthquake on and above a Modified Mercalli Intensity Scale (MMI) of 8 (severe potential damage). This accounts for about 20% of the current container port activity.

Large earthquakes can cause major damage to port infrastructure and terminal equipment, including ruptures in breakwaters, quaywalls and terminals surfaces, the collapse of the quay and yard cranes or damage to container stacks. Earthquakes can also result in seismic liquefaction of saturated soils. Prior to an earthquake, the water pressure is relatively low. However, an earthquake can cause the water pressure to increase to the point where the soil particles can readily move with respect to each other. When liquefaction occurs, the ability of a soil deposit to support foundations reduces, which can lead to the tilting or sliding of quaywalls or the formation of major holes in terminal surfaces.

The Kobe earthquake of 1995 represents one of the most disruptive geophysical events impacting port activities. Immediately after the event, the port was forced to be shut down, and repairs took about two years. Since Japan is a compact country, there were alternatives to ensure the continuity of maritime services through alternate ports.

In January 2010, a large-scale earthquake occurred in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, causing a death toll of 300,000 people, and severely damaging ports in the region. The port of Port-au-Prince was severely damaged.

In early February 2023, a deadly earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale on the border between Türkiye and Syria severely damaged the port of LimakPort Iskenderun. The earthquake topped over most containers. A large fire broke out at the container terminal yard forcing the port authority to suspend port operations. Carriers diverted containers to nearby ports and larger transshipment hubs such as Mersin in Turkey and Port Said in Egypt.

C. Climate change

Additional natural risks to port activity fall under the multidimensional impacts of climate change, many of which will potentially take place in the long term and are difficult to evaluate. In addition to the risk of hurricanes, with which it may be associated, rises in sea level are of direct concern to port activity. However, port terminals are resilient facilities designed to handle tidal ranges. Any expected sea-level rise will likely impact surrounding infrastructure, such as access roads, before disrupting port infrastructure.

Climate change can also affect the hinterland connectivity of ports. For example, climate change is expected to result in significant water level fluctuations on key inland waterways such as the Rhine in Europe or the Yangtze in China. Extended periods of extremely low water levels jeopardize the continuity of inland barge service operations and negatively affect the utilization level of inland vessels. Vessels have to sail below their actual loading capacity to restrict their draft.

A similar risk associated with water supply has been observed over the Panama Canal and Great Lakes system with a potential trend of higher water level fluctuations, with periods of lower than average intermixed with periods of higher than average. Navigation and shipping capacity become more challenging to plan, impacting new ships and equipment investments.

4. Ports and Anthropogenic Disruptions

A. Accidents

Anthropogenic disruptions are related to human activities, particularly managerial and operational errors and labor-related disruptions. Accidents at terminal facilities can be disruptive, but the large majority have a limited impact on total capacity. Errors in ship maneuvering have damaged piers and even toppled cranes, resulting in the loss of terminal capacity and the need for costly repairs. Infrastructure and equipment failures can create sporadic disruptions but can be mitigated with predictive maintenance and operational safety.

Another risk concerns accidents in the access channel that could result in a partial or complete blockage of the port terminal facilities or transoceanic passages. The blockage of transoceanic passages is rare but can have important ramifications due to the cascading effects created along supply chains. For instance, the closure of the Suez Canal between 1967 and 1975 because of the conflicts between Israel and Egypt led to substantial disruptions in the shipping industry with deviations via the Cape Route. In 2021, the Suez Canal was blocked for one week when the ultra-large containership Ever Given ran aground, causing disruptions in Europe-Asia trade routes and the associated supply chains. Unintentional vessel groundings can have a wide range of causes, but navigation errors remain the most important.

Ports with a long and relatively narrow access channel, such as Antwerp or Hamburg, are particularly at risk of blockage. In the worst-case scenario, an accident or incident on the access route (fairway or lock) can result in a full or partial port blockage. The potential impact of a port blockage varies from port to port as options may be available. The direct effect of a blocked entrance would be that no maritime traffic can enter the port for the duration of the salvage of the blockage or repair of the lock, as was the case in 2024 for the Port of Baltimore which was almost completely blocked after a containership collision caused the collapse of a major harbor bridge. This would mean that normal maritime-related activities would halt for at least a couple of days up to even months. A significant share of all directly employed personnel involved in dock labor would become technically unemployed. Logistics companies located in the port would suffer since their main modal transfer point would not be available anymore, forcing them to secure more costly transportation options. Relocation could become an option.

Moreover, industrial activities in the port and the immediate hinterland, such as steel plants and car assembly plants, might be seriously affected. They typically rely on the port for incoming and outgoing maritime cargo flows. Rerouting these flows via neighboring ports is often challenging, given the volumes involved and the impact on inter-port land traffic. The probability of such an event occurring is low to moderate.

Ships continuously increase in size, making for smaller margin errors for pilots, including docking. Nautical authorities have worked out stringent conditions for large ships to enter ports or navigation channels to avoid any accident risk as much as possible. Tests using ship simulators can first evaluate the risks associated with accommodating specific ship sizes in navigation channels and ports. A trial call of a ship can provide empirical verification of the simulation results and a good basis for clearance of the respective ship size and class. Traffic rules and separation schemes, port traffic control, and experienced pilots reduce the risk substantially. Still, a catastrophic failure always remains a possibility, even if the chance of occurrence is slim. The risk of accidents and port blockage can further be reduced by providing multiple access ways, such as more locks.

The most disruptive events are linked with the use of the port as a storage facility for hazardous goods, such as chemicals and explosives. The Tianjin port explosion of 2015, the Beirut port explosion of 2020, and the Chittagong container depot explosion of 2022 are illustrative of the massive damage, loss of life, and disruptions a port industrial accident can generate. These events were the outcome of a fire that set off an explosion in stockpiled explosives and chemicals. While Tianjin was able to resume operations quickly because the explosion took place in the backport area, the Beirut explosion destroyed and severely damaged multiple piers and storage facilities.

Many ports worldwide are home to a whole range of industrial activities, such as chemical and petrochemical clusters, steel plants, and automotive assembly plants. These industrial clusters can be the source of major industrial disasters ranging from fire, accident, or explosion in a local area to a large chemical spill affecting the entire port. The remote possibility exists for nuclear contamination since many nuclear plants are located in or near port areas. The impact of an industrial disaster depends on its nature. For example, an isolated fire could lay waste in part of a chemical plant and cause temporary problems for surrounding companies but will have no major effect on port operations.

On the other hand, a full-scale chemical or even nuclear disaster could damage a large part of the port, causing human losses and blocking or heavily disrupting port activities for an extended period of time. Prolonged reparations and contamination could significantly damage the local economy. To avoid accidents, industrial facilities have to comply with the highest possible safety norms and are monitored continuously. Stringent regional and international standards apply in terms of fire prevention, firefighting, and industrial and environmental safety. Furthermore, the port community needs to ensure that extensive local or regional disaster management plans are in place to respond effectively in case of any calamity.

B. Labor disputes

Labor disputes resulting in strikes can hamper port and terminal operations and even result in a de facto port or terminal blockage. Labor unions are typically very visible in a port context, although major differences in union power can be observed across seaports and countries. Labor unions (representing dockworkers and pilots) initiate most port strikes, often disagreeing with planned port reform schemes, reforms of the nautical service provision, wage levels, remuneration, and overall working conditions and arrangements as part of collective bargaining agreement negotiations. The port strikes of 2002, involving 29 ports on the American West Coast, were highly disruptive events for the transpacific trade and a key factor in maritime shipping lines, further expanding all-water routes to the East Coast through the Panama Canal. This shift was an important factor in the decision to expand the Panama Canal, which came to fruition in 2016. Terminal automation can also be a source of labor unrest. For example, the new APM Terminals terminal development at Maasvlakte 2 in Rotterdam faced strong opposition from local labor unions. They feared the possible loss of jobs and lower wages, given the shift from being standard quay crane drivers to remote operators of automated quay cranes.

When a strike lasts several days or even weeks, the disruptions can spread to neighboring ports as many ships deviate to other terminals. Ports affected by regular and extended strikes can incur major reputational damage and a loss of trust of market players. The impacts can be far-reaching, such as structural shifts of cargo volumes to rival ports and a sharp decline in port investments by international companies. Appropriate social dialog structures and effective stakeholder relations management can help to reduce the risk of strikes. Social dialog through effective joint consultation bodies is considered the key to a sustainable relationship between employers and labor unions. When industrial relations are good, labor unions will have the opportunity to contribute to improving the service provision process and labor productivity. Unions can help dock workers and nautical staff participate effectively in improving performance by creating a safe environment in which to critique existing work methods. A climate of constructive dialog thus enhances social peace in ports.

C. Economic and geopolitical events

A category of disruptions is associated with the derived demand of ports, implying that port activity is bound to external demand factors largely outside its control. Economic and political shocks can indirectly disrupt port activities by impacting cargo demand. For instance, the financial crisis of 2008-2009 was associated with substantial declines in port activity in several regions of the world. For ports such as Los Angeles and Long Beach, it took almost a decade for the traffic to recover to pre-crisis levels. For a large port, such economic disruptions can result in a gap in the traffic generated that can reach millions of TEUs over the years. If infrastructure investments were made in years prior to the economic disruption, a port could face an enduring overcapacity situation that may test its financial resilience.

Since future traffic expectations are important factors in terminal concessions and infrastructure investments, the lack of return on investments can undermine the viability of ports and maritime shipping. For instance, the Hanjin bankruptcy of 2016 involved the world’s seventh-largest carrier, which was forced to cease operations in a market that was in a situation of overcapacity, with most shipping lines posting negative returns. Ports evolving in highly volatile markets are subject to constant and random traffic fluctuations. For example, Argentinian ports like Buenos Aires have seen limited growth over the last 20 years, but with a series of fluctuations in the traffic they handle.

One of the largest disruptions that impacted the resilience of ports and maritime shipping was the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020-21. While the 1918-19 Spanish Flu pandemic was devastating, international trade and port volumes were much more limited, reflecting the regional orientation of most economies. The Covid-19 pandemic took place in a highly integrated global economy and was associated with the rapid decline in global port activity in the first half of 2020. Still, ports were able to adapt to the widespread disruption, and many even faced a situation of under-capacity in the second half of 2020, as the demand bounced back faster than expected.

Geopolitical events, particularly conflicts, are acute disrupting factors for the ports involved. As a result of conflicts, port infrastructure can be damaged, pillaged, and unmaintained, undermining the capability to support basic demand for essential goods. Following the Arab Spring of 2011, several countries in North Africa and the Middle East faced social turmoil and, in some cases, the degeneration into civil war. The activity at Libyan (Tripoli, Benghazi), Syrian (Tartus, Latakia), and Yemeni (Aden) ports collapsed and has barely recovered. In the case of civil unrest, ports can become the focus of relief efforts where international aid arrives, creating unique sets of challenges as populations converge towards port facilities.

Economic embargos can have adverse effects on port activity of both the country subject to sanctions and the ports of its trade partners. Iranian ports have been impacted by successive waves of sanctions that began in 1979 after the Iranian Revolution. The case of Venezuela is also illustrative, as economic policy and the associated massive decline in economic activity since 2015 have undermined port volumes, such as in the leading national ports of Puerto Cabello and La Guaira. In 2022, the Russian invasion of Ukraine resulted in international sanctions curtailing its port activities and having impacts on the flows of several agricultural and energy commodity trade. In late 2023, the use of drones and missiles by Houthi rebels in Yemen was able to substantially curtail transits through the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, impacting regional port activity.

D. Information technologies

A new range of disruptions has emerged in the last decade as ports are increasingly dependent on information technologies for management, operations, communication, and marketing. One type of disruption relates to information technology failure that can undermine operations, particularly management systems, with vulnerable automated terminals. Cyberattacks are an emerging risk, as the 2017 Petya Ransomware Cyber-Attack on Maersk demonstrated. Port Community Systems (PCS) and other port-related platforms for information sharing and exchange are constantly subject to intrusion attempts in part due to the potential value of the information contained, but more for the high ransomware reward if an extensive port system is disrupted. Information technologies have underlined the critical importance of cyber-resilience for the maritime and port industry.

E. Pandemics

Pandemics represent an unpredictable but far-reaching risk. One of the largest disruptions that impacted ports and maritime shipping resilience was the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020-2022. While the 1918-1919 Spanish Flu pandemic was devastating, international trade and port volumes were much more limited, reflecting the regional orientation of most economies. The COVID-19 pandemic occurred in a highly integrated global economy and was associated with the rapid decline in global port activity in the first half of 2020. Still, ports were able to adapt to the widespread disruption. Many even faced a situation of under-capacity in the second half of 2020, as the demand bounced back faster than expected. The outcome was several supply chain disruptions, including port congestion.

5. Mitigation Mechanisms

Port authorities can play a vital role in advancing risk mitigation and adaptability. An example of this potential is the variability of the responses and measures that port authorities developed following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, which built resilience capacities and contributed to avoiding any significant disruptions of operations. The same example illustrates that appropriate and timely public policy initiatives can facilitate the continuation of operations, relief, and recovery in the maritime transport sector.

The comprehensive goal of the stated adaptation mechanisms is to keep port facilities operational, primarily as a fundamental node supporting supply chains, including any relief effort that may be required. Ports can act as a resilience platform, which is a secured strategic asset able to ensure the continuity of supply chains and securely access their hinterland. The resilience of global supply chains cannot be assessed without a corresponding overview of the resilience of the port sector.

Improving port resilience requires mitigation mechanisms that either lessen the impact of disruptions or allow for a quicker recovery.

A. Port infrastructure and superstructure

Improving port infrastructure and superstructure to withstand natural hazards such as earthquakes or anthropogenic risks from accidents or hazardous materials. The profile of the investment is related to the risks involved, which can be ranked and prioritized. For instance, Japanese and Chilean ports, have invested in infrastructure able to withstand earthquake stress at a level much higher than the standard. The risk of earthquakes is so high that the additional investments are perceived as fundamental. Breakwater, access channels, basins, and turning basins are also part of port infrastructures that need to function properly and be able to cope with technical changes in ship design, namely economies of scale. The port superstructure concerns terminal equipment, particularly cranes, which are the most important for terminal operations.

B. Traffic diversion

Planning traffic diversion strategies that consider the closure of elements of the port, such as a specific terminal or an access corridor. This can involve contingencies to use different terminals within the port. For hinterland access, this can involve an alternative mode or corridor. The ultimate strategy is to consider a complete traffic diversion if the port is forced to close for a period of time because of serious disruptions and infrastructure damage. This was the case in 1995 after the Kobe earthquake when traffic needed to be rerouted. It also occasionally happens with short-lived disruptions where a few ships can be diverted to an alternative port, such as in the aftermath of the Tianjin and Beirut port explosions. Cruise lines also redirect cruises to alternative ports of call during a hurricane and, on rare occasions, are forced to switch to a different home port.

C. Preparedness

Preparedness involves the positioning of equipment, parts, and materials to replace or repair damaged facilities. It also identifies key personnel that need to be available to operate the terminal and repair damaged infrastructure and equipment. This improves the restorative capacity of the port terminal at the cost of duplication (more parts and equipment than necessary for standard operations) and higher inventory costs. The key challenge is to assess what quantity to store with a view to potential risks and disruptions to build redundancy in operations and infrastructure.

D. Hazmat reporting

To avoid industrial accidents, regulations concerning hazardous materials need to be rigorously enforced. However, industrial accidents often occur not because regulations are not followed but because authorities are unaware of the nature, extent, and conditions in which hazardous materials can be stored within port facilities. Therefore, such regulations cannot be effective without a reporting and accounting system.

Growing concerns about cybersecurity issues have underlined that investments in information technologies have become a crucial element of port resilience. This can involve continuous monitoring of breaches and the vetting of key users, as well as secure information exchange protocols and the comprehensive backup of databases.

E. Satellite facilities

Satellite facilities, such as container depots and inland terminals, allow to support port operations, relieve congestion, and offer a buffer to accommodate volatility. Off-site office facilities can be set to accommodate the additional managerial workforce and, particularly, to offer a location where management can operate if the on-terminal office facilities are forced to close temporarily.

The relocation of terminal facilities to lower-risk areas represents the most drastic mitigation strategy. It can occur when a terminal has been damaged to the extent that repairs are not cost-effective, so shutting a terminal down becomes an alternative. A new site is selected at a location assessed as more resilient and less prone to disruptions.

Related Topics


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