Emerging Severe Wind Patterns on Transpacific Routes Highlight Shipping Risk

Emerging Severe Wind Patterns on Transpacific Routes Highlight Shipping Risk

From October 2020 to April 2021, Everstream Analytics tracked seven incidents in which cargo ships lost containers overboard. Of those incidents, five occurred on transpacific routes during severe weather events and two occurred in the North Sea during inclement weather. The losses have brought to light emerging trends in maritime supply chain disruptions and have drawn attention to the severe impacts of container spills. Without adequate mitigation tactics, container spills can be catastrophic for businesses reliant on maritime shipping.

Container losses in 2020-2021 increase from previous annual losses

Container losses are not a new phenomenon. The World Shipping Council (WSC) has been tracking container losses using data provided by shipping carriers since 2008. The WSC reports the data in three-year increments. For the years 2014-2016, the WSC reported a three-year average annual loss of 1,390 containers.1 For the years 2017-2019 (the most recent data on record), the three-year average annual loss decreased to 779 containers.2 For its complete data set of containers lost from 2008-2019, the WSC reports an average annual loss of 1,382 containers.3 Intelligence gathered by Everstream Analytics shows that 3,072 containers were lost during spills from October 2020 to April 2021. Since April 2021, no container losses have been reported. In just over four months, container losses tracked using Everstream Analytics’ Intelligence Monitoring capabilities surpassed the previous yearly average reported by the WSC.

The high-impact events that have occurred have demonstrated the importance of monitoring container spills and understanding their potential supply chain implications. Container spills since October 2020 have increased 122 percent compared to the previous yearly average. The only year on record with container losses greater than this period is 2013 when the sinking of the MOL Comfort off the coast of Yemen resulted in a loss of 4,293 containers in a single incident.4 Everstream Analytics’ in-house Applied Meteorology team conducted weather analysis on four incidents from November 2020 to April 2021 and found that severe weather played a large role in compromising the security of the containers on board and setting these highly impactful events into motion.  

Four cargo ships lose record number of containers in the Pacific over the past year

Ocean Network Express (ONE) Apus, a mega cargo ship with a carrying capacity of 14,000 TEU, lost a record number of containers overboard after encountering severe weather off the coast of Japan. The ship was traveling from Yantian, China to Los Angeles, California when 1,816 containers fell overboard during inclement weather.5 Following the incident, the ship was forced to divert course and head to Japan for emergency repairs and cargo recovery in the port of Kobe. Everstream Analytics incident data reveals that the incident added 4 months to the ship’s journey and cost an estimated USD 200 million (EUR 169 million) in cargo losses.6

Although smaller in scale, in 2021 three other cargo ships suffered container losses on transpacific routes. On January 16, 2021, the Maersk Essen, a cargo ship with a capacity of 13,100 TEU, lost 750 containers overboard in rough seas north of Hawaii.7 The ship was traveling from Xiamen, China to Los Angeles, California when it encountered severe weather. The ship diverted from its scheduled call in Los Angeles to the Port of Lázaro Cárdenas, Mexico. Everstream Analytics incident data reveals that that incident added 3 weeks to the ship’s journey.

On January 29, the MSC Aries, a cargo ship with a capacity of 14,300 TEU, lost 41 empty containers in severe weather.8 The ship was traveling from Los Angeles, California to Ningbo, China. The ship diverted from its scheduled route to avoid further losses before docking at the Port of Ningbo on February 4.

On February 16, the Maersk Eindhoven, a cargo ship with a capacity of 13,100 TEU, lost 260 containers overboard in rough seas off the coast of Japan.9 The ship was traveling from Xiamen, China to Los Angeles, California. The ship was forced to divert to the Port of Yokohama, Japan for inspection and repairs. Everstream Analytics data reveals that the incident added 11 days to the ship’s journey. The combined containers losses of these three incidents were 1,051 containers lost through the first two months of 2021.

The damage estimates in each of the above incidents includes only the number of lost containers. In addition, each incident involved an unspecified number of damaged containers on the deck of each ship causing possible cargo damage or delays repacking cargo into new containers. Container spills often lead to delays in supply chains. The alarming spike in container losses over the previous year has further exacerbated shipping difficulties presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. The quick succession of several impactful incidents is reason for supply chain managers and maritime freight companies to develop contingency plans in preparation for intensifying weather patterns that could disrupt continuity of shipments. Companies can create a transportation plan that integrates demonstrated seasonal weather risk patterns for transpacific shipping. According to insights from Everstream Analytics’ in-house Applied Meteorology team, maritime shipping faces seasonal weather challenges in the Pacific Ocean between the months of October and March. Challenges include increased wave height, higher wind speeds, and heavy rain during the rough season in the Pacific.

Higher than average wind speeds contribute to disruptive events

Severe weather is a key contributor to most container losses. Everstream Analytics’ in-house Applied Meteorology team ran weather analyses for wind speeds for transpacific shipping lanes from November 2020 to March 2021 and found that abnormally strong winds were present across the Pacific.

Figure 1: Wind anomalies (in mph) in the Pacific Ocean from November 2020 to March 2021. Source: Everstream Analytics.

Using geocoordinates from Everstream Analytics data, analysis for wind patterns revealed that the ONE Apus, Maersk Essen, MSC Aries, and Maersk Eindhoven each encountered wind speed anomalies that were higher than the yearly average. In the graphs below, Figure 2 shows the deviation between the average wind speed for that area (in red) and the winds experienced by each of the cargo ships during the period when they experienced container losses (in black).

Figure 2: Comparison of average wind speeds and wind speeds encountered by each of the affected container ships for the time period that the accidents occurred. Source: Everstream Analytics

The ships encountered wind speeds that were higher than what would be expected for that time of year. Maersk Eindhoven, in particular, encountered wind speeds that were 14 mph higher than wind speeds recorded in previous years, which may have resulted in toppling containers from onboard the cargo ship. Increased wind speeds can impact a ship by blowing it off course and by causing increased wave height. These patterns can emerge days before the ship experiences any of the effects. The emerging high wind patterns intersect with shipping lanes in the Pacific, but also create inclement and unpredictable weather that can affect areas that are not experiencing high winds.

Such wind patterns expose ships to higher risk on transpacific routes. As such, owners and operators of transpacific cargo ships should remain on high alert for wind-related updates during the upcoming season. Network planning allows supply chain mangers to anticipate and plan for such seasonal challenges.

Other factors compound shipping risk:

Container ship accidents can also be influenced by the type of cargo that is being carried. Increased carrying loads during the COVID-19 pandemic have compounded shipping risks for many container ships. In previous years, cargo ships ran most routes with loads below capacity. However, global consumer demand and container shortages have caused most carriers to pivot towards 100 percent capacity for each sailing. Increased volumes of cargo on container ships have decreased the margin for error to safely sail.

High winds or changing wave patterns can cause ships to drift off course. Ships can then be exposed to parametric rolling in severe weather. This is a key contributor to container ships losing their cargo during wind anomalies. As the ship is exposed to diagonal or side to side rolling, the securing mechanisms for the containers are stressed. In some cases, the rolling can compromise the integrity of container stacks, causing cargo to fall into the sea. Parametric rolling can start without warning and many factors play a role in its initiation. Sudden, unanticipated changes in wave height, length, and frequency, as well as changes in wind speed and direction can put a ship off course and slowly begin the rolling process. The Maersk Eindhoven lost engine power for only five minutes in severe weather, however, the time was sufficient for the weather to divert the ship off course. Exposure to severe rolling can compromise the structural integrity of the container stacks, causing container losses.

Debilitating mechanical issues also pose risks for ships. On March 12, the Maersk Eureka, a cargo ship with a carrying capacity of 13,092 TEU, was forced to shut off engine power to repair a damaged fuel pump. The ship was forced to drift for two days, exposing its cargo to risks as it made temporary repairs. The ship was forced to divert north to Alaska, where an oceangoing tug met it with replacement parts. The diversion cost the ship several weeks and could have cost more if severe weather had occurred.

On April 2, the MSC Ariane, a 13,000 TEU cargo ship, was forced to stop at sea after a mechanical failure related to fuel quality damaged the engine. The ship was en route to Los Angeles, CA from Xiamen, China, however, the incident forced the ship to be towed to Wakayama, Japan. The ship did not lose any cargo; however, the incident could have been more costly if the ship had been exposed to severe wind.

Shifting wind patterns could be indicative of a broader trend towards high winds across the pacific, posing an increased risk of container loss for transpacific shipping. Increased exposure to weather-related incidents is exacerbated by high demand for limited space on cargo ships. As demand for shipping capacity and faster lead times increase, carriers may make decisions to go through severe weather, not around it, in order to not add to transit times. As containers are stacked higher and higher to maximize the efficiency of every voyage, ships can become more unsteady. Port workers have little visibility into the weight of containers being loaded, leading to container stacks that can be unintentionally top-heavy.

The mitigation of container losses becomes increasingly important for supply chain continuity

Container losses can prove difficult to mitigate for supply chain managers. It can take several months to identify which cargo has been affected by an incident. Even if the cargo was not lost overboard, offloading containers and equipment to assess for damage can add months to the ship’s journey. In December of 2020, the ONE Apus discharged containers at a rate of 10 per day. Because of the low visibility of the lost or damaged cargo, supply chain mangers often must wait weeks to see what shipments need to be replaced, what can be salvaged, and what was unaffected. The length of time taken for emergency port diversions and repairs often leave little options for the shipment. Customers are faced with the choice of waiting to see if the original ship can continue its journey or trying to roll cargo onto other cargo ships at a time when cargo rates are at a premium and booked far in advance. Full shipyards and congested berths can also exacerbate the cost of a container spill. Despite the difficulties, the potential repercussions for companies involved in a container spill are considerable. These include cargo loss and insurance claims, unfulfilled customer deliveries, and even insolvencies for medium-sized companies. Once an incident occurs, supply chain managers are constrained by the difficult nature of the recovery, leading to further losses.

An early look into the winter 2021/22 forecast in the north Pacific:

Early indications for the winter 2021/22 shipping season point to a higher than normal number of disruptive weather events across north Pacific shipping lanes. This is due to a number of factors including sea surface temperatures (SSTs) across the Pacific. In the north Pacific, SSTs are extremely warm while in the equatorial Pacific, SSTs are cooling off as a La Nina event (a period of cooler than normal SSTs in the central and eastern equatorial Pacific) develops by the end of the year. This configuration is conducive for the development of more intense and more frequent storm systems in the north Pacific which cause wind and wave issues that impact ships traveling across this key supply chain link.

Everstream Analytics recommends the following measures for customers with interests in maritime shipping:

  • Monitor and track changing weather patterns: Customers are advised to closely monitor severe weather events in shipping lanes and plan for potential seasonal disruptions. Everstream Analytics Applied Metrology team tracks weather developments and provides forecasting and modeling for disruptive weather events.
  • Create a network map: Customers are advised to map their supply chain network and key assets in case of any future container spills. Everstream Analytics’ Network Planning capabilities allow customers to be prepared for disruptions by optimizing networks for risk and strategically planning recovery shipments.
  • Increase visibility into transportation logistics: Customers should utilize real-time shipment visibility to monitor maritime mechanical failures, port congestions, and other disruptions. Everstream Analytics provides insight into potential transportation disruptions with real-time updates through its Transportation Execution capabilities.
  • Invest in predictive analysis to get in front of what’s ahead: Customers are advised to take proactive measures to anticipate disruptions like container spills before they happen. Everstream Analytics’ Intelligence Solutions team synthesizes risk data from diverse sources to provide predictive and near-real time supply chain intelligence.

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