How Maritime Weather Forecasting Minimizes Risks in Shipping Operations

Emily Heaslip

According to some analysts, the shipping industry regularly underestimates the impact that maritime weather forecasting can have on operational efficiency. Lack of understanding of marine weather can account for 80% of the impact on performance, according to shipping insight specialists StratumFive.

Marine Insight reports, “The resistance when navigating in unfavorable conditions generally increases by 50-100% of the total ship resistance in calm weather. Indeed, MAN Energy Solutions’ analysis of trading conditions for a typical 140,000 dwt bulk carrier shows that on some routes, the increased resistance, or sea margin, can reach extreme values up to 220%.” 

Maritime weather forecasting plays a significant, if underappreciated, role in shipping route optimization. Weather fronts, both good and bad, impact time, fuel, and money. Accurate maritime forecasting requires better data: here’s how, and why, improvements in maritime weather forecasting can help the shipping industry simultaneously reach decarbonization and financial targets. 

Optimizing global shipping

Global shipping companies are constantly seeking to optimize performance. In practice, this means reducing costs, avoiding delays, and meeting regulatory mandates such as the IMO GHG Strategy — all while operating safely. These complicated and sometimes conflicting priorities become even more difficult with the addition of unpredictable maritime weather. 

Major weather events, such as Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria present significant and unavoidable challenges for logistics companies. For instance, the damage caused by Hurricane Harvey closed Port Houston, Texas for six days; ports in Georgia and Florida closed for three days when Hurricane Irma hit. Global shipping is a highly choreographed operation; when one major port closes, it can impact shipping routes all over the world. 

It’s not just major weather events, however, that can cause issues for shipping companies. Fog, wind, and ice can all adversely affect global shipping routes. “Despite modern electronic devices that assist navigation, ships at sea usually reduce speed in fog. This will delay a ship’s arrival at port, or cause the ship to have to increase speed when in clear weather to make up time. This results in higher fuel consumption and higher fuel costs,” explained Maritime Studies South Africa

In the past, marine forecasting has been complicated by lack of data, limited access, and reporting inconsistencies. But, today’s weather routing capabilities, informed by better data, can help the shipping industry minimize risks. Here’s how. 

How maritime weather forecasting can help

Weather affects everything from shipping route maps to port operations to fleet management and navigation. Here’s how the shipping industry can achieve performance targets with better marine forecasts. 

Reduce fuel usage

Fuel accounts for 50-60% of operation costs. Weather routing, also known as optimum ship routing, can help save on these costs. “The goal is not to avoid all adverse weather but to find the best balance to minimize the time of transit and fuel consumption without placing the vessel at risk of weather damage or crew injury,” wrote Safety4Sea.

Sofar Ocean’s Wayfinder uses the world’s largest fleet of open-ocean weather sensors to integrate real-time observational data collected along shipping routes, yielding the best marine weather forecasts. Not only does this allow ships to avoid extreme weather, but it also leads to significant fuel savings.  

Dynamic route guidance

Weather at sea can change quickly. A dynamic weather routing product can adjust the ship’s route accordingly to minimize delays and maximize safety. Wayfinder evaluates over 100 million routing options based on the latest weather forecast and business needs, delivering the safest and most profitable route directly to shipmasters and fleet operations staff. 

Avoid disasters (like the Ever Given)

The grounding of the Ever Given in the Suez Canal was unique in how it captured public attention around the world. However, 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.   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. Access to real-time maritime forecasting plays an important role in reducing casualties and avoiding disasters. 

Improve margins

Beyond the cost savings in using less fuel and delivering goods on time, marine weather forecasting has other hidden cost savings. Shipping companies can improve their margins by reducing insurance costs, saving on crew overtime pay, and avoiding additional fees from port operators. Overall, this helps shipping companies build healthier profit margins that can be reinvested back into fleet optimization and reaching decarbonization targets. 

For more on optimizing shipping routes, visit the Sofar Ocean blog.

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