A port is a landing place for ships on a coast, river, or lake. Ships dock at ports to load and unload their cargo and passengers.


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Earth Science, Oceanography, Geography

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Morgan Stanley

A port is a docking place for ships on the coast of the ocean, a river, or a lake. Ships dock at ports to load and unload their cargo and passengers.

Ports play a crucial role in transporting goods and raw materials. They are often categorized by their purpose. For example, Ras Tanura, Saudi Arabia, is an oil port. Concarneau, France, is a fishing port. Gibraltar, a territory of Great Britain, is a naval port, used by the military. Nassau, Bahamas, is a cruise ship and tourism port.

Ships usually have more than one port of call, or place where they dock. Before the construction of the Panama Canal, a ship traveling from the American cities of New York, New York, to San Francisco, California, would have dozens of ports of call around the coasts of North and South America. These might include Miami, Florida, United States; Recife, Brazil; Buenos Aires, Argentina; Valparaiso, Chile; and Acapulco, Mexico.

Cargo Ports

Cargo ports are important commercial centers where water transportation and land transportation meet. Many goods, such as cars, oil, iron, and steel, are too heavy or unwieldy to be transported across long distances by plane, train, or truck. Trains may transport such goods to a port, where they are loaded onto a ship. Once on the ship, goods travel across the globe.

Some cargo ships are far too large to operate in a crowded port. Tugboats are small, powerful boats that tug large ships behind them. The tugboat can pull the heavier ship into port with greater ease than the ship could manage on its own. Tugboats are familiar sights at many ports.

The port of New Orleans, Louisiana, has been one of the busiest cargo ports in the United States for hundreds of years. This port connects the interior of the United States to the rest of the world through the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. The Mississippi moves more than 500 million tons of cargo every year. Thousands of ships dock along the Mississippi in New Orleans. Ships from the United States unload goods such as grain and other agricultural products from the Midwest. Ships from Latin America unload coffee and goods such as rubber. Ships from Asia may bring goods like clothing or barrels of oil.

Most cargo ports are warm-water ports. Warm-water ports are ports that remain ice-free all year. Even ports where the water is cold, such as New York or Vancouver, Canada, are warm-water ports. Russia has thousands of miles of coast, and hundreds of ports, along the Arctic Ocean. Almost all of these are cold-water ports. They sometimes remain locked in ice for weeks or even months at a time. Goods cannot be transported in or out of the port when it is blocked by ice. Sailors cannot board or stay in submarines when the vessels are surrounded by ice.

Passenger Ports

Some ports, such as the one in Dover, England, chiefly serve passengers. The port at Dover has been used by people for centuries because it provides the shortest sea crossing between England and Europe, at just over 32 kilometers (20 miles).

Passenger ports have traditionally been centers of communication. Historically, ports brought the latest news, goods, and fashion from overseas. People who live and work around busy ports are often familiar with foreign languages and cultures. The port of New York was the gateway to the United States for millions of immigrants from Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, for instance. Italian, Spanish, and Yiddish became familiar languages, while customs from Scandinavia and Russia mixed with Irish traditions.

Ports can also play host to more dangerous types of communication. The brisk ports of the Mediterranean Sea have been part of trade routes for thousands of years, familiar to sailors and traders from Africa, Asia, and Europe. In the 14th century, sailing vessels from the Black Sea landed at the port of Messina, Sicily. Besides cargo like silk from China, rugs from Persia, and spices from Indonesia, the ships carried rats. The disease on these rats, plague, spread quickly throughout all of Europe. At least a quarter of the European population died from a form of the plague called the Black Death.

Fast Fact

Paddle-to-the-Sea is a 1941 book by Holling C. Holling about a wooden model of a Native American visiting ports, including a sawmill and iron foundry, along the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River in Canada and the United States.

Fast Fact

Port Authority
A city or region's port authority manages the activity of the region's port. Port authorities work with governments, industries, and the police to help promote the safe economic activity of the port.

Fast Fact

Port and Starboard
Port refers to the left side of a ship, when facing forward; starboard is the right side.

Fast Fact

In 2005 the Port of Shanghai, China, became the busiest port in the world. Shanghai includes a port on the Pacific Ocean as well as on the Yangtze River. Each year more than 560 million tons of cargo go through Shanghai's port, and that number is still climbing. Some of the world's other busiest cargo ports include those at Singapore and in Rotterdam, Netherlands.

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Hilary Costa
Erin Sprout
Santani Teng
Melissa McDaniel
Jeff Hunt
Diane Boudreau
Tara Ramroop
Kim Rutledge
Hilary Hall
Mary Crooks, National Geographic Society
Tim Gunther
Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
Kara West
Educator Reviewer
Nancy Wynne
National Geographic Society
Last Updated

January 2, 2024

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