In 2015, massive sandstorms forced officials to halt all Suez Canal traffic.
On either side of the vital Egyptian passageway were ships waiting to get through — ships carrying much-needed food from Asian and European countries to the Middle East and North Africa, a region that does not produce enough food on its own and can, at times of distress and scarcity, erupt into instability.
Luckily, the closure did not last long and had no serious repercussions. But a closure of the Suez, even temporarily, could lead to violence in the surrounding regions and skyrocketing food prices across the globe, according to a new report.
Including the Suez, there are 14 maritime and inland trade junctures, known as “chokepoints”, across that globe are responsible for distribution of most of the world’s food supply. And climate change threatens to close them.
Although minor disruptions are common, all but one chokepoint has seen a major closure in the past 15 years due to unprecedented weather events.
Extended interruptions of trade at these chokepoints could conceivably lead to food supply shortfalls and price spikes, according to a new report released by the think-tank Chatham House.
For many of these chokepoints, no accessible alternative routes for shipment exist.
The Turkish Straits, for example, are a series of maritime ports that connect the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas to ports in the Black Sea. Should they close, food products would have to be transported via a new land route, which would cost time and resources to create.
Here are some of the consequences that climate change-related closures could cause along the world's most important supply chains:
Suez Canal, Egypt: The Potential for Uprising
Providing the shortest maritime route between Europe, Asia, and Africa, the Suez canal is one of the most important and heavily trafficked trade routes in the world. The Suez is one of the three routes that determines market access for nations within the Middle East and North Africa regions (MENA).
Water scarcity and lack of arable land has forced MENA countries to import over 50% of their food products, leaving the region vulnerable to changes in global trade.
The Arab Spring has in part been attributed to a 37% rise in bread prices following a Russian ban on wheat exports following a bad harvest. Hunger and political instability quickly turned bread riots into political uprisings.
Should the Suez close long enough to prevent wheat and grain from entering the MENA region, similar violence could occur.
Though Egypt is no stranger to sandstorms, the 2015 sandstorm came with an unexpected vigor. Unseasonably warm, sunny, and dry weather allowed for dust and sand particles to be picked up easily by the wind, creating a sandstorm that lasted days.
Had the canal been closed for an extended period of time, food prices around the world would have increased, just as oil prices increased following the closure of the canal in 2011 due to political turmoil.
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Black Sea Ports and Turkish Straits, Eastern Europe and Turkey: Hunger & Malnutrition
The Black Sea Ports, Turkish Straits, and Suez Canal operate independently, but each are part of a critical trade route that connects Russia and Eastern Europe to the MENA region via maritime routes.
The most recent closure of the Turkish Straits was brought on by an unusual Arctic gust that brought heavy snowfall, leading to poor visibility. Snowfall is not unheard of in Turkey’s eastern region, but climate near the ports tends to be warmer mediterranean or subtropical—too warm for a snowstorm.
The same cold front shut down the Black Sea for days. The impact on wheat and grain shipments was so severe that North and South American nations grew concerned over possible nation-wide shortages and led to a yearly high in wheat prices.
Panama Canal, Republic of Panama: ‘Catastrophic Damage’
A transit point for one-fifth of the world's’ soybean exports, and one-sixth of all wheat exports, the Panama Canal is a significant link connecting Western and Asian markets, reports Financial Times.
Although a massive, nine-year, $5.4 billion expansion project came to a close in June 2016, the canal, and Latin America trade in general, is still at risk for failure if the yearly spending on regional infrastructure is not doubled, says the International Finance Corporation.
Unlike the Suez, the Panama is not at sea level, and requires a series of locks and gates that control water levels to raise and lower ships through the canal.
Although the expansion project hopes to decrease the impact of climate on canal operations, the Panama has long been at the mercy of fluctuating water levels.
In 2010, heavy rains caused parts of the canal to flood, leading to uncontrollable water levels that left the gates inoperable. Opening the gates without an even water level on either side would cause catastrophic damage.
March of 2016 brought an extended drought, described as a “seasonal weather phenomenon”, and put the canal on depth restriction, according to Reuters. Low water levels prevented the locks from transporting larger ships through the canal.
About 5% of world trade ships pass through the canal each year. Prolonged closure of the canal, as a result, could cause higher prices and longer shipping time, especially on products shipping between Asia and the Americas.
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