No one can fully predict when Mother Nature will strike. From tornadoes and hurricanes to earthquakes and blizzards, natural disasters and major weather events are continually testing our infrastructure.

Additionally, global warming is not only expected to result in long-term sea level rise, it also appears to be increasing the intensity and frequency of extreme weather events. The rates of such natural disasters are on the rise and show no signs of receding.

It is becoming more clear that historical weather patterns may no longer be sufficient as the only consideration in designing and constructing critical infrastructure, particularly along the coasts and inland waterways. With strategic planning, modern technology and sound engineering design, it is possible to prepare and plan for long-term climate trends and increased intensity and frequency of natural disasters, thus creating more resilient infrastructure that can “weather the storm.”

Designing Resilient Ports and Maritime Facilities

Engineering with resiliency in mind has never been more important as coastlines and inland ports experience storm surges, rising sea levels and unprecedented flooding. Many important supply chain assets and transportation networks are affected when ports, maritime facilities and the surrounding infrastructure fail to operate because of natural disasters or storms.

To create more resilient and sustainable ports and terminals, the entire supply chain must be considered. Not only do port facilities need to be designed and constructed to weather rising sea levels, greater weather variability and more intense storms, but the surrounding roads, rail lines, power sources and transmission lines must be hardened as well.

Starting the process of infrastructure hardening can seem overwhelming at first, and a possible lack of funding may hinder pursuit of these critical updates. When factoring in the cost benefit of resilient infrastructure investments, it is important to consider the economic and societal impacts of a disruption in port operations. Additionally, the cost to rebuild and replace damaged infrastructure may far exceed the additional incremental cost of designing resilient infrastructure at the onset of a project. This is where an infrastructure resilience assessment comes into play.

An infrastructure resilience assessment can help determine the elements of facilities that are at risk of operational disruptions. An assessment also can help quantify the return on investment of implementing more sustainable and resilient components.

These assessments are performed by an experienced engineering team that will:

  • Research a port or maritime facility’s existing infrastructure and operational requirements.
  • Evaluate the facility’s vulnerabilities to long-term impacts of climate change, such as sea level rise, and increased intensity and frequency of extreme weather, including storms, heat waves and freezes.
  • Provide resilience-based recommendations on critical infrastructure elements.

Examples of common resiliency enhancements include raising and hardening waterfront infrastructure and electrical distribution systems, specifying equipment with the capacity to withstand wider temperature ranges, and incorporating distributed energy resources to provide backup power during electrical grid disruptions.

These assessments also can be used to determine the order of magnitude costs of infrastructure improvements, prioritize short-, mid- and long-term investments, and create a road map or plan of action. This planning effort can help prioritize capital spending and provide a sound foundation for pursuing grants and funding for the recommended upgrades.

Resilient Engineering in Action

Flooding is one of the most common weather-related challenges that can occur at a port. For example, one port in the intermountain region experienced 30-foot flooding over a two-week period. During that time, soil from under the railroad bed was washed out, barges came loose from moorings and all electrical infrastructure had to be replaced.

To avoid similar issues in the future, the port authority decided to take action to improve resiliency. Our team is providing a critical infrastructure resilience assessment and conducting strategic master planning for the build-out of the port and its surrounding properties.

While this specific assessment is ongoing, general recommendations for similar projects in this scenario would likely include implementing levees and flood walls; hardening existing structures; installing stormwater pump stations and tide gates; raising equipment, rail and critical infrastructure above the 100-year flood elevation; and constructing taller mooring dolphins to an elevation that prevents vessels from floating away during high-water events. Assessment recommendations will vary based upon the port’s location, climate and type of operations being conducted.

Climate adaptation is, and will continue to be, a critical component in the way ports and maritime facility infrastructure is designed. While resiliency is rarely the sole focus of a project, it’s a critical factor that must be considered to provide port operational continuity and economic security.


Traditional ways of doing business are being challenged worldwide by demands for increased efficiency, improved customer responsiveness and lower costs to move cargo. Solving for such issues requires a reliable, knowledgeable team armed with design-build capabilities and flexible contracting options to upgrade your critical infrastructure.

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Scott Chewning is a project manager at Burns & McDonnell. He has over 20 years of experience in the industry including design for a variety of federal, commercial, industrial, transportation and utility projects across the U.S.