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Ports are docking places for ships carrying people and cargo. The United States has ports along the ocean, rivers, and lakes. Ports are critical for local, national, and international trade, as well as immigration, tourism, security, and environmental policy.
This infographic, from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, outlines "Key Partners Involved in Critical Port Infrastructure Operations and Oversight." The graphic is an excellent illustration of one aspect of what Daniel Edelson, former vice-president of education programs at the National Geographic Society, calls systems thinking.
“Scientists today view the world as a set of interconnected natural and human systems,” Edelson writes. “These systems create, transform, and move resources.”
The port infrastructure in this graphic is a human system of exchange—focusing on economics, communication, safety, and security. Absent is a representation of the natural systems of ports—their ecosystems, hydrology, or climate.
“To be geo-literate,” Edelson says, “a person must be able to reason about how he or she depends on these different systems and how his or her actions can affect them.”
Use the discussion questions in the following tab to help your students better understand their relationship to ports, and how their actions can affect the infrastructure found there.
  1. What organizations do you think have an interest in port infrastructure but are not represented in the graphic?

    • Answer

      Some private organizations not represented by the graphic include food service providers or cleaning crews. Public organizations not represented probably include other federal government agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as state and local government agencies, such as the police or a representative from the local chamber of commerce.

      In addition, port infrastructure also includes many non-governmental agencies, or NGOs. These are public organizations not affiliated with the government. Environmental groups, such as Riverkeeper or the Surfrider Foundation, are NGOs that may contribute to port infrastructure.

  2. What are some jobs or careers each “key partner” provides at the port?

    • Answer

      Answers will vary! Here are just a few of the jobs that contribute to port infrastructure.

      1. Shipping companies: Accountants, ship captains
      2. Container terminals: Longshoremen (dockworkers)
      3. Crane operators: Machinists, crane operators
      4. Coast Guard: Navigators, search-and-rescue personnel
      5. Power: Electricians, lawyers
      6. Water: Hydrologists, plumbers
      7. DHS Office of Infrastructure Protection: Managers, law enforcement personnel
      8. Trucking companies: Truck drivers, dispatchers
      9. Rail carriers: Logistics coordinators, IT specialists
      10. Department of Transportation: Surveyors, engineers

  3. Which “key partners” rely on the geographic perspective to operate safely and efficiently?

    • Answer

      All of them! The geographic perspective is vital to port infrastructure.

      • Shipping companies and Coast Guard personnel must be able to navigate port waters and often-crowded port traffic.
      • Container terminal personnel, crane operators, and trucking and rail carriers must be familiar with roadways and railways, as well as traffic patterns in and around the port.
      • Power and water companies must evaluate the port’s need for electricity and water. They can meet this need, or work with other key partners in port infrastructure to reduce their resource use.
      • Government agencies must represent their port to the federal government, and explain and enforce federal regulations to other key partners in port infrastructure.

  4. What natural disasters would impact port infrastructure? How?

    • Answer

      Many natural disasters would impact port infrastructure. These are a few examples:

      • A tsunami, earthquake, or flood could destroy many facilities, pieces of equipment, and workspaces in the port. All key partners in port infrastructure would help rebuild the port. (The links lead to footage of the 2011 Tohoku tsunami hitting the port at Kamaishi, Japan; the 1964 "Good Friday Quake" hitting the port at Seward, Alaska; and floods from 2012's Hurricane Sandy hitting ports in New York and New Jersey.)
      • A landslide or flood could deposit sediment that prevents ships from reaching the port. Engineers associated with different key partners would probably lead the effort to dredge the harbor. (The link leads to footage of a 2010 landslide hitting the port of Manaus, Brazil.)
      • A wildfire could threaten buildings and workers at the port. Government agencies, such as local fire crews, and non-governmental agencies, such as relief workers, would probably lead recovery efforts. (The link leads to footage of a 2013 fire hitting the Sheerness Docks in Kent, England.)

  5. How can consumers make an impact on port operations or infrastructure?

    • Answer

      Consumers help determine what cargo is unloaded at the port. They do this in two major ways.

      First, consumer demand determines what cargo businesses ship and port personnel unload. Consumer demand for petroleum, for instance, helps create enormous port infrastructure built around oil tanker traffic. Consumer demand for a specific toy or clothing item also determines what the container ship chooses as its cargo.

      The second major way consumers make an impact on port infrastructure is through passing laws. Laws can restrict what cargo is allowed into a port. U.S. ports ban trade in elephant ivory, for instance. Laws can also determine how cargo is processed or unloaded. Environmental regulations prohibit ships from dumping pollutants into port waters. Laws regulating port infrastructure can be international, national, state, regional, or local.


goods carried by a ship, plane, or other vehicle.


sharing of information and ideas.


to bring and secure a ship or boat to a space or facility.


study of monetary systems, or the creation, buying, and selling of goods and services.


conditions that surround and influence an organism or community.


the understanding of human and natural systems, geographic reasoning, and systematic decision-making.


process of moving to a new country or region with the intention of staying and living there.


visual representation of data. Also called information graphic or graphic.


structures and facilities necessary for the functioning of a society, such as roads.


place on a body of water where ships can tie up or dock and load and unload cargo.


safety or stability.


the industry (including food, hotels, and entertainment) of traveling for pleasure.


buying, selling, or exchanging of goods and services.