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How Does Global Warming Affect Shipping and Transportation?

April 11, 2022 Kevin Baxter


Global warming is expected to affect shipping and transportation in a variety of ways - with some of those effects already being felt. Perhaps the most obvious shipping method to be affected by global warming is ocean freight, with impacts including sea level rise on ports, stronger storms and - on the other side of the ledger - melting ice caps opening previously unpassable shipping lanes. But those rising temperatures and more extreme weather can also affect other forms of transportation. Infrastructure like roads, bridges, railways and airports are susceptible to temperature-related wear and tear. Plus, hotter temperatures can make the vehicles themselves - trucks, ships, trains and planes - less efficient and more likely to overheat. And those hotter temperatures mean more loads may require temperature-controlled shipping to avoid spoilage.

How does climate change impact shipping routes?

 The impact of climate change on shipping routes is a layered one, as it presents both costs and benefits. In terms of negative impacts, stronger storms will make passage across oceans more challenging. And when those climate change-fueled storms make landfall on ports, they could wipe out places for ocean freighters to dock for extended periods. While sea level rise is a well-documented impact, inland waterways are expected to lose depth, making some rivers and the U.S. Great Lakes among other locales more difficult to pass. On the more optimistic side, the melting of ice caps means Arctic shipping lanes become viable, with projections indicating once the so-called "Northern Sea Route" opens, shipping times from the east coast to Japan for example could drop 10 days or more. Higher tides and deeper oceans also mean more passable areas for large ships, though that also means lower bridge clearance. And in the TBD - to be determined - area, climate change will have an impact on both surface and deep-water ocean currents, so routes may need to be adjusted to compensate.

How does climate change impact roads, bridges and railways?

Climate change presents a number of impacts to transportation infrastructure like roads, bridges and railways - most of which are negative. With more extreme heat due to global warming, comes pavement softening and expanding. That can create potholes and other surface damage. For those dependent on ice roads for supplies during cooler months, the window during which those are passable will continue to shrink and the number of lanes available will decrease as well. Back on solid ground, bridge joints and supports as well as railroad tracks both expand in the heat, making them more likely to buckle and thus collapse or become otherwise unpassable. Stronger storms also affect roads, bridges and railways. Along the coast, these storms can lead to storm surge causing complete inundation. Even away from the coast, torrential rains may lead ground to wash out around them, causing collapse. On the somewhat more positive side, less extreme cold means all of these transportation lanes will be more passable in the winter months, and roads will be less damaged by plowing, heavy duty tires and salting.

As you think about how global warming affects shipping and transportation, it's also important to consider how shipping and transportation contribute to global warming. And if you haven't already, now is a great time to develop a sustainable shipping strategy. 

If you're ready to take the next step, at InTek Freight & Logistics, we can help. Just tell us what you need and we'll discuss how our expertise can help with the unique shipping challenges your business faces. Rather do a bit more research first? View our Freight Guides for comprehensive articles and eBooks on all things freight and logistics.

And below, find a few resources to help you learn more about sustainability in supply chains:

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