How Climate Change and Recent Shipping Disasters Highlight the Urgent Need for Real-Time Ocean Data

The Ever Given, grabbed headlines after becoming stranded in the Suez Canal and blocking traffic for nearly a week. The massive ship weighed 200,000 tonnes and measured 400m in length; the task of unsticking this behemoth led to delays in the shipping industry, huge costs for the global economy, and, of course, great internet memes

But, while the Ever Given impacted about $9.6 billion in global trade, a much bigger crisis looms on the horizon. The Suez Canal operation coincides with World Meteorological Day, celebrated annually by the World Meteorological Organization on March 23. This year’s event focused on the oceans, our climate, and weather: specifically, how understanding links between these three variables can help us improve weather forecasts, assess the impacts of climate change, and manage water resources.

Both events, along with other major recent shipping disasters, highlighted the need for better ocean and marine weather forecasts. Here’s how real-time data can help the ocean freight logistics industry and others be prepared for the future. 

The Ever Given impact on global shipping routes

The Ever Given accident is being largely blamed on human error, but the ship itself said a sandstorm caused it to run aground. “A significant incident like this is usually the result of many reasons: The weather was one reason, but maybe there was a technical error, or a human error,” said Lt. Gen. Osama Rabie, chief of Egypt’s Suez Canal Authority in an interview.  

Whatever the cause of this particular incident, it highlights a significant and long-standing issue in the shipping industry. Allianz reports that 41 large ships were lost in 2019, 46 in 2018. Over the last 10 years, around 100 big shipping vessels have been destroyed.  

[Read: When to Skip the Suez Canal for the Cape of Good Hope]  

Many of these losses occur when there is extreme weather at play. Casualty statistics indicate that “bad weather” is a contributing factor in one in five ship losses. The cargo ship El Faro, for instance, sank in the Atlantic Ocean in 2015 after sailing into Hurricane Joaquin, killing all 33 people aboard. It’s clear the shipping industry would benefit from access to real-time sea state observations—currents, waves, and swell. 

Real-time data gives vessel operators the opportunity to re-route according to current ocean and weather conditions while optimizing fuel efficiency. Inefficient weather routing can not only spell disaster — or cause avoidable human error — but, more commonly,  it leads to increased time spent at sea, disrupting and delaying the supply chain as well as increasing fuel burn and CO2 emissions.  

WMO Day: ocean, climate, and weather

World Meteorological Day on March 23 marked the release of the WMO’s Global State of the Climate report. This year’s report was particularly focused on the impact of climate change — with data showing that 2020 was one of the three warmest years on record, even with La Niña cooling in the Pacific Ocean. 

In the 2020 annual report, the WMO acknowledged the lack of real-time data in the ocean freight logistics industry — and the increased risk that comes with this knowledge deficit.

 “IMO is aware that the scarcity of data from vast areas of the ocean (so-called data-sparse areas) to support basic weather forecasting, the provision of marine meteorological and oceanographic services and climate analysis and research is a problem for both meteorology and oceanography,” said the report.  

[Read: Trends in Maritime Logistics for 2021]  

Lack of data will only become a bigger problem. Climate change is clearly leading to more extreme, more frequent weather events which threaten shipping and ports. Warmer seas led to a record Atlantic hurricane season in 2020, as well as intense tropical cyclones in the Indian and South Pacific Oceans. “The storm surge damage in these areas demonstrated the power of the ocean and its devastating impact on coastal communities. Non-tropical ocean storms also continued to wreak havoc aboard ships, with additional losses of life and cargo at sea,” wrote Professor Petteri Taalas

If anything, climate change has only made the need for real-time data more urgent. For ships to safely traverse the seas and avoid these extreme weather events, real-time data is imperative for creating a shipping routes map that optimizes for fuel and CO2 emissions. 

The need for real-time ocean and marine weather forecasts

Each of these events further highlights the need for better ocean and marine weather forecasts. When ships rerouted from the Suez Canal, they needed immediate information to be able to optimize their journey – and save time and fuel without compromising safety. Data from Sofar’s Spotter buoy network can be used to generate accurate weather forecasts through assimilation into global weather models. 

The grounding of the Ever Given is unusual, but intense storms are going to become more common. This is where real-time data — waves, swell, and weather  — is imperative. It’s not just about avoiding storms, either. This data can be cross-referenced with business metrics such as market impact, contract terms, and CO2 targets to find the best possible route for each vessel. 

Products like Sofar’s Wayfinder are already making measurable impacts in the effort to improve ship routing. By combining weather forecasts with extensive vessel performance data from each ship, Sofar’s Wayfinder product delivers to captains at sea what Google Maps does on land: real-time data ingestion and continuous end-to-end optimization to avoid heavy weather, reduce fuel costs, lower emissions, and stay on schedule. And, the weather forecasts powering Wayfinder are up to 50% more accurate than NOAA and ECMWF.

[Read more: 7 Tools for Selecting Better Shipping Routes]  

The Ever Given is an anomaly, but climate change is not. Sofar is working toward helping shipping companies prepare for some of the challenges outlined in the WMO report through global weather forecasts and more. Learn more about Wayfinder here.

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