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Decision makers’ barriers to climate and extreme weather adaptation: a study of North Atlantic high- and medium-use seaports


Decision-making barriers challenge port administrators to adapt and build resilience to natural hazards. Heavy rains, storms, sea level rise (SLR), and extreme heat can damage the critical coastal infrastructure upon which coastal communities depend. There is limited understanding of what impedes port decision makers from investing resources in climate and extreme weather adaptations. Through semi-structured interviews of 30 port directors/managers, environmental specialists, and safety planners at 15 medium- and high-use ports of the U.S. North Atlantic, this paper contributes a typology of seven key adaptation barriers. We measured shared knowledge of the identified barriers using a cultural consensus model (CCM). Knowledge of the barriers that prevent or delay resilience investments can help the decision makers direct their resources to help reduce coastal vulnerability and support safe and sustainable operations of U.S. ports. Such actions also serve to help prepare the marine transportation system for future climate and extreme weather events.

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  1. Interview protocol and procedures were approved by the Institute of Review Board at the University of Rhode Island (IRB Approved 894694-8). Interviewees were informed of the purpose of the study and that they give a written or oral consent to being interviewed and being recorded (for transcription purposes only). The majority of interviews (73%, 22/30) were conducted in person, 27% were conducted over the phone, 10 of the ports were visited.

  2. NVivo Coding comparison between coders; in the initial coding phase, yielded a 0.696 Kappa value (Values between 0.40 - 0.75 = fair to good agreement).


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This work was supported by the USACE project grant (W912HZ-16-C-0019) entitled “Measuring Vulnerability to Inform Resilience: Pilot study for North Atlantic Medium and High Use Maritime Freight Nodes”. The authors thank the anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments and constructive criticisms of the manuscript. The categorization scheme of the barriers presented was developed by the authors for this seaport study. We also thank Jose Menendez Lopez for his work on the graph that presents the identified barriers, Katherine Chambers (USACE), Josh Murphy (NOAA), and the Committee on the Marine Transportation System Resilience Interagency Task Force.

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Correspondence to Elizabeth L. Mclean.

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Mclean, E.L., Becker, A. Decision makers’ barriers to climate and extreme weather adaptation: a study of North Atlantic high- and medium-use seaports. Sustain Sci 15, 835–847 (2020).

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  • Barriers to adaptation
  • Climate change adaptation
  • Decision makers
  • Extreme weather
  • Seaports
  • Resilience