Another difficult challenge in preparing for climate change at seaports is that no single agency or individual has sole authority over any given port, according to Becker. Some ports are privately owned, some are public and some are a mixture of both. And a broad range of entities – from transportation companies to insurance companies to the Environmental Protection Agency – have some stake in how they are managed. The arrangement greatly complicates ports' efforts to budget and plan for the future, according to the study.

But plan they must, said Fischer.

"By the end of the century, quite a few ports will be in trouble, even if you are using the most conservative estimates for sea level rise," he said. "And if you use the estimates at the top of the range, all of them will be in trouble."

Other co-authors of the study are Satoshi Inoue of the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo and Ben Schwegler, a consulting professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford and chief scientist at Walt Disney Imagineering.

The research was funded by a planning grant from the Sustainable Built Environment Initiative at the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford. Additional funding was provided by a McGee grant from the Stanford School of Earth Sciences.