Climate or weather? Something is changing

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Darren Vaux revisits the topic of climate change and examines how well-prepared the industry is for its impact (it's not good news).

Darren Vaux.
Darren Vaux.

Four years ago this month I wrote an article for Marine Business entitled ‘Climate Change – what it really means for the marine industries’. At the time, I received a wide range of feedback both positive and negative. The key messages at that time were:

  1. The politicisation of the environment by the left had created opposition and cynicism in the middle and on the right of politics stifling sensible discussion.
  2. Carbon concentration in the atmosphere, sea levels, sea temperature and frequency of extreme weather events were all on the rise.
  3. Our industry needed to develop strategies to adapt to the effects of climate change and demonstrate leadership in carbon reduction strategies.

So, four years down the track it is worth looking back to see how far we have progressed. The news isn’t good.

At a local and international level carbon reduction strategies have been largely ineffective and the rate of change in the rise of CO2 in the atmosphere, seal level rise and frequency of extreme weather continues to accelerate. The southern hemisphere summer has seen temperature records broken across the country and the northern states of the USA and Canada saw record lows as a result of a polar vortex. These events in isolation are weather but in aggregate reflect a trend towards the acceleration of change in global and regional climates.

So what does this really mean for the boating and marina industries? Let’s break it down into the key components that affect our industry.

Extreme weather

Evidence suggests there is an increase in both the intensity and frequency of severe weather events in the warmer months and, in some cases, a reduction in the cooler months. This is a logical consequence of the warming of the globe and in particular the top layers of the ocean as higher levels of evaporation lead to higher levels of precipitation. Essentially, as the earth absorbs/retains more energy from the sun, the atmosphere (air pressure gradients) and oceans (currents) become more charged with energy. This manifests in higher high pressure systems and lower low pressure systems creating steeper pressure gradients; that is, more wind. Likewise troughs and fronts become more intense. For example, as when hot humid air is forced more quickly up into the atmosphere by a cold front creating more intense thunderstorms.

So, what the evidence is showing and what we all feel anecdotally is that the weather is changing, both at the extreme level but also in the nature and frequency of more local and regional weather. We are already seeing the consequences of this at two levels. For businesses and boaters alike, insurance premiums are on the rise. As insurance markets are global as a result of re-insurance, damage from extreme weather events in other parts of the world translates to premium rises in Australia. Insurance is also being conditioned with some boats, types of storage and locations being unable to secure insurance or at greatly increased premiums.

At the practical end in some locations, there are fewer perfect days for boating, predominantly due to increased wind strength and storm activity. This is both a mixture of reality and perception. The idea of more wind sounds great if you are into sailing and kite-surfing but the reality of the market is that power-driven craft (from PWCs to cruisers) and intention to fish are the largest sectors of the market and the largest contributor to new participants in a market where the average age of participants is increasing. These boaters prefer calmer days.

So how do we prepare ourselves for a future where there is more extreme weather and an increased frequency of days when there is more wind or storms? In the first instance, we need to carefully consider the location and attenuating capacities of our marinas and mooring apparatus into the future and the ease of access to berthing and mooring in difficult conditions. This will need to be coupled with better marina designs and technologies for ease of manoeuvring as well as changes in vessel design to reduce windage.

Another consideration with increased rainfall is the implications for existing channels and dredging. As an industry, we need to be working with government in a proactive way to plan for ongoing maintenance dredging to keep our waterways safe and navigable.

Sea level rise

Sea level is affected by influences that can range from hours to centuries, from tides to thermal expansion of the oceans with the impact of wind, atmospheric pressure, ocean currents and global oscillations in-between. As ocean temperature increases due to global warming there is a small increase in the mean sea level over the globe as a result of predominantly thermal expansion and secondarily polar ice melt.

Since my last article four years ago, according to NASA which tracks the Global Mean Sea Level (GMSL) by satellite telemetry, the GMSL has increased by 18mm. It doesn’t sound much but on a global scale it is enormous.

I have no doubt that as an industry we can adapt to these increases but the more immediate impacts of wind affect (set-up) or in extreme weather (storm surge) need further consideration. Likewise the atmospheric impact on sea level may become an issue, particularly with extreme low pressure cells when coupled with the storm surge effect. Sea level responds to atmospheric pressure to the extent that a rise or fall over the base of 1013hPa of 1hPa causes a change in sea level of 1cm. That is, during a low pressure system of 980hPa the sea level could be 33cm higher than predicted by the tide charts and higher again if there is an onshore wind creating set-up.

The issue here is that we need to be prepared for greater sea level variations resulting from a wide number of influencing factors.

Weaning off carbon

We are clearly seeing the automotive industry moving towards electric vehicles. There is a certain inevitability that boats will have to follow the same direction.

Electric motors are in fact ideally suited to marine application with their size, power and torque profiles. As with cars, the biggest challenge is battery technology, range and access to, and time of, charging. As automotive moves towards electric engines on a 10-20 year horizon, the economics of fossil fuels will change as economies of scale reduce and governments impose tariffs to support the economics of electric vehicles. Fossil fuels will become more expensive with clear implications for marine engines and boat owners. There are clearly some significant changes coming to vessel designs of all types and sizes in coming years.

Likewise, there will need to be some significant changes in marina infrastructure to support the electrical demand for the charging of vessels. The obvious solution is increased solar/photovoltaics (PV) and battery capacity at marinas to support a charging base load. The batteries would support overnight charging while daily loads are not being drawn.

This is the principle behind smart charging of electric vehicles where the majority of vehicles are charged over night at ‘off-peak’ times. In any event there will need to be a combination of distributed generation (say PV cells at a marina) combined with centralised generation (power stations) to meet future demand.

In Australia today only about 0.2% of new vehicles sold are electric vehicles which is significantly less than other parts of the world, predominantly due to lack of government support. Our challenge, as always, is being a vast country with a small population and the economies of scale required to make charging stations economic. We are slow to start but the outcome is inevitable. And so it will be with boats.

Risk and opportunity

With change there is both risk and opportunity. The climate is changing and this change is being accelerated by human-introduced CO2 (and other gases) into the atmosphere. The actual local and regional consequences of that change in the medium term are unclear. What is clear is that we can expect more extremes of weather. How, when and where this will manifest is also not clear.

What we can reasonably conclude though is that we need to prepare ourselves for a future where our marinas, boats and boating lifestyle need to be able to adapt to these changes and extremes. Our boaters will need boats that are more manoeuvrable, and they will need better skills. Our marinas will need to be prepared for making berthing easier. Electric propulsion for boats is inevitable, it’s just a matter of when.

Ultimately, I suspect it will be consumer driven and as consumers embrace electric cars they will not favour the high cost of fossil fuels for their boat. It will be fascinating to see this market develop with not only new boats but ultimately repowering of the existing fleet with electric propulsion. It is some way away yet but it does open up the question about how we prepare for the future with training and skills for building and maintaining these systems.

I can see a future scenario where the majority of boats have electric propulsion with some form of independent pods that provide easy and automatic manoeuvring in close quarters making boating safer, more relaxing and cheaper to maintain and operate. This ease of operation will open the market up to more people and respond to the trend towards shared ownership and peer-to-peer access to boats.

Couple this with the development of technology-enabled social networking opportunities that bring communities of boaters together on the water and we will deliver a lifestyle commensurate with the future expectations of boaters. Ignore it and we will decline.

It will take time but developing and implementing these technologies is, in my opinion, a great opportunity for our industry which we should be collectively working towards.

About the author

Darren Vaux is a director of the Boating Industry Association, vice president of the Marina Industries Association, executive committee member of ICOMIA, director of the award-winning Empire Marina Bobbin Head in Sydney, and the Australia, NZ and Pacific Islands representative for bedsonboard.com.

This article was first published in the March-April 2019 issue of Marine Business magazine.

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