(Credit: Chris Baraniuk)

The inland seaport that wants to widen a river

The Port of Hamburg has been a hub of maritime activity for nearly 900 years – but sitting 120km from the North Sea is making it hard for the new breed of vast superships to reach it.

A low metal fence is all that separates you from the machines that roam the dockside. Looking like the lower part of a bus sliced off just above the wheels, each carries a container to or from the gigantic cranes that loom over the container ships moored nearby. No people are allowed into the area where they operate but these automated guided vehicles, or AGVs, move by themselves. They are aware of each other’s routes and weave safe paths between the cranes and stacks of waiting containers, ferrying cargo back and forth endlessly.

The Port of Hamburg in Germany was founded on 7 May 1189 by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I. The automated dockyards are just one of the latest overhauls to a port that has been a major maritime hub for nearly 900 years.

But times change. The port has started to see a fall in the number of containers passing through it and the upgrade it says it really needs – a massive project to widen the river Elbe so that large ships can reach the port more easily – has just been put on hold once again.

On 10 February a German court ruled that plans to dredge the Elbe needed further amendment to address certain environmental concerns. The decision is the most recent setback in a legal dispute that has already dragged on for more than a decade.

Hamburg’s problem is its location. Lying nearly 120km (75 miles) from the North Sea, it is essentially an inland city. The Elbe is its lifeline, one that has fed it well for centuries and helped make Hamburg one of the top twenty busiest container ports in the world. But container ships are getting bigger. To compete for business with rivals like the huge port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands, Hamburg wants to attract the new breed of supersized ship – and that means digging out large portions of the river.

“The main issue is the widening so that ships – when they come in and out – can go past each other and don’t have to wait,” says Torsten Engelhardt, head of corporate communications for HHLA, the company that runs Hamburg’s container terminal. “It’s mainly a problem of efficiency and of not having to make our customers wait for the tides.”

Around 120km from the North Sea, Hamburg is essentially an inland city

At the moment, ships whose keel descends more than 12.5m underwater – a measurement known as the draft – have to wait for a high tide. But container vessels with a draft of 15m or more are becoming more common. In 2015, the number of calls made by the largest ships, which carry at least 14,000 TEU – the equivalent of 14,000 20ft containers – more than doubled on the previous year. Such vast ships, some around 400m long, also need lots of space to manoeuvre.

To help big ships make their way inland, Hamburg has a Vessel Coordination Centre (HVCC), a joint project between HHLA and another container terminal operator, EuroGate. The HVCC was set up to track the movements of ships travelling to Hamburg from around the world. When a vessel from China, for example, passes Gibraltar it may be several days before it reaches Hamburg. But the HVCC will already begin calculating the best time for the ship to arrive, so that it can avoid waiting at anchor off-shore for tidal changes. The system takes into account all arrivals and departures to the port, coordinating them appropriately. It’s like air traffic control on a much slower scale.

But it’s not enough. The number of shipping containers processed by the port has recently fallen. In 2016, reports suggest the figure was down by 1.2% in the first half of the year. People in Hamburg say the major factors include a slowdown in trade with China and Russia.

After Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, the EU placed sanctions on the country that resulted in an economic slump. Cargo destined for Russia from around the world is often picked up in Hamburg and Russian exports come here too. The slowdown has had an impact.

Today, Hamburg handles a total volume of 8.8 million TEU every year. Businesses in the port think that if dredging goes ahead this could rise to 25 million TEU by 2025. Port authorities want to go ahead with their plans as soon as possible.

Roughly half of the river Elbe would be widened by 20m

Over the centuries, the Elbe has been dredged several times to allow for the passage of bigger ships that sit lower in the water. But the current plans to widen river would be a vast undertaking and work could go on for two years. Roughly half of the river, the stretch nearest Hamburg, would be widened by 20m (65ft) – with a special 7km portion made even wider to create a passing point for big ships. Around 38.5 million cubic metres of sediment would have to be removed – more than twice the amount dredged in a whole year during normal work to maintain the river’s depth.

“At the moment, when you have a high tide you get lots of sediments in the direction of Hamburg and the low tide is not able to carry these sediments out,” says Malte Siegert at the Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union.

The legal dispute has been led by opposition from environmental campaigners like Siegert, who say the project will harm birds and marine life, especially in coastal wetland areas where sand and mud excavated from the river may be dumped.

With increased dredging, the work could also result in a serious reduction in water quality. “The amount of oxygen is decreasing, it’s bad for the condition of the fish in the river,” says Siegert.

Making the river wider, in particular, could threaten birds that nest on the banks of the Elbe – including reed warblers and egrets. Their habitats would be diminished and perhaps made more at risk of flooding. There may even be problems for local apple farmers whose orchards lie near the river. An increase in saltwater intake onto those lands could harm the quality of the fruit, says Siegert.

Critics of the plans point out that other ports, including one at nearby Wilhelmshaven, could take a bigger share of ship traffic. Many in Hamburg tend to disagree. “If you’re really honest, nobody wants to come to Hamburg from the ship owners’ point of view,” says Axel Mattern, chief executive of Port of Hamburg Marketing. Navigating the Elbe costs time and money. But Hamburg is well connected to the rest of Germany and beyond. “All the cargo wants to come to Hamburg,” he says. “We have seven to eight full trains a day from here to Prague.”

But despite the sales pitch, Mattern admits the atmosphere in Hamburg remains uncertain. Global shifts in the shipping business are not always easy to predict, and political events around the world also affect a port’s fortunes. But whatever happens to the river Elbe, Hamburg is determined to keep bringing the ocean's trade to its door.

“At the end of the day, you are a port,” says Mattern. “You can’t change where you are.”

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