Recent supply chain disruptions have put U.S. seaports in the spotlight, motivating the $17 billion in funding allocated for them in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). Last December saw the first installment of this funding, with $241 million through the Department of Transportation’s Port Infrastructure Development Program for 25 projects to improve port facilities in 19 states and one territory. The White House followed suit in January announcing $14 billion in funding for over 500 ports and waterways projects across 52 states and territories in fiscal year 2022. These investments are already playing a critical role in the American blue economy and our postpandemic recovery.
What the IIJA lacks is highlighted in reports from earlier indicating that weatherrelated disruptions and delays – combined with infrastructure damage caused by sea level rise and extreme storms – are expected to impose significant costs on the marine transportation system.
The Biden Administration can immediately address these weather and climate hazards with data, services and predictive impact tools. Rather than waiting years for the long-term projects announced by the Department of Transportation to materialize, the United States can seize several “shovel ready” opportunities now. First and foremost is to put better weather intelligence information in the hands of port operators and users. Advance knowledge of hazardous conditions can help minimize damage to landside infrastructure and increase the effectiveness of port operations. I have seen first-hand how the onset of fog forced the closure of the Galveston Ship Channel. And a single hurricane can shut down operations for days, imposing costs of hundreds of millions of dollars per day.
The National Weather Service (NWS) under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) provides wide area marine forecasts and support products, but their expert meteorologists lack the resources to tailor their service to individual ships, piers and waterways. Candidate technology solutions to fill this gap include route optimization apps, geospatial dashboards featuring insights and alerts, and modern applications programming interfaces (APIs) that allow individual users to specify their location, activity and timeline for exactly what they will do and when. This kind of high-definition, actionable information is available today in the private sector.
Another critical need is oceanographic data and services. NOAA’s Physical Oceanographic Real Time System (PORTS) program monitors tides, currents and water levels below bridges to aid pilots in the safe maneuvering of vessels in ports and waterways. As a deck watch officer on a Navy deep draft ship homeported in San Diego in the 1990s, I meticulously planned my arrivals and departures with this information to avoid grounding at low tide and striking the Coronado Bay Bridge at high tide. With only a few feet to spare each time, this was no easy needle to thread!
NOAA’s PORTS program has an extremely limited budget. By adding just a minor amount of IIJA funding for NOAA PORTS services, the Biden Administration can accelerate these installations to more U.S. seaports faster, thereby dramatically boosting their safety and efficiency.
Lastly, high resolution bathymetric information is essential for the safe passage of vessels in and out of port. NOAA’s precision navigation service applies data from modern multi-beam sonar surveys to routinely update the nautical charts of shipping channels, which require periodic dredging to remove accumulated sediments. A compelling example is the 2017 Port of Long Beach precision navigation survey that enabled authorities to increase the draft for incoming ships from 65 to 69 feet. This increase not only allowed ships to carry additional product, it also reduced the need for lightering, thereby saving individual shipping companies over $10 million each year. NOAA’s precision navigation updates occur at a frequency moderated by historically scant available resources. Now with the flood of funding from the port waterside infrastructure, NOAA can accelerate precision navigation updates across all U.S. seaports to optimize their productivity.
This is a historic time for U.S. ports and waterways. The IIJA has offered a massive boost to both the landside and waterside infrastructure of America’s seaports. Allocating just a small fraction of this funding for modern weather, water and navigation data could result in a remarkable return on investment. Just as a prudent mariner heeds time, tide, wind and sea to secure a prosperous voyage, the United States needs to keep a weather eye on its port infrastructure investments to ensure they do not run aground.