Source: American Association of Port Authorities.
The position of Rotterdam as the world’s largest port was unparalleled for decades, a rank it held until 2000. It was then overtaken by Shanghai, Singapore, and Tianjin; a large share of the world’s major ports is now in East Asia. The main factors behind this shift are linked with export-oriented strategies that concomitantly involve an increase in export throughput, but also imports of parts, energy, and raw materials to supply urbanization and industrialization.
The geography of the world’s major ports, as measured in tonnage, shares some commonality with traffic figures measured in TEU, but very large port facilities are found in areas that have limited commercial activity. Two general patterns are observed:
- Major commercial gateways (polyfunctional ports) are clustered around East Asia and the northern European range. Although many are large industrial and manufacturing complexes generating large quantities of bulk cargo, they are also major centers of containerized trade. They tend to have a high value-to-weight ratio.
- Resource ports (monofunctional ports) are in different clusters than main commercial gateways since most of them do not handle significant container traffic. Of particular relevance are Australian, Brazilian, and American Gulf Coast ports linked with mineral, petrochemical, and grain trade. They have a low value-to-weight ratio.
For instance, Port Hedland in northwestern Australia is the world’s largest exporter of iron ore, handling 484 million tons of cargo in 2016, more than three times the amount handled by Los Angeles / Long Beach (129 million tons), the largest commercial gateway of North America.