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Moving Beyond the Suez Canal Blockage

suez canal authority ever given aground
Ever Given aground, March 27 (Image courtesy Suez Canal Authority)

By Harry Valentine 03-28-2021 11:26:00

A severe windstorm that obscured visibility from the ship’s bridge is alleged to have pushed the container ship the Ever Given into the bank of the Suez Canal before causing the ship to turn sideways across the navigation channel, disrupting important international ship traffic at considerable cost. It will be important to assess the future likelihood of such a windstorm occurring again and develop strategies to eliminate or minimize future blockages across the Suez Canal.

Introduction

The incident involving the ship, the Ever Given having been pushed sideways across the Suez Canal has occurred elsewhere around the world, except that cross currents occurring in rivers caused vessels to turn sideways, blocking the navigation channel. There are documents cases of such incidents having occurred along sections of the Mississippi River and also along sections of the St. Lawrence Seaway. The Ever Given incident involved a powerful crosswind that carried a sufficient volume of sand to obscure visibility.

Prior to the construction of the Suez Canal, wind-driven sail ships carried international trade. The lack of suitable wind along the canal required alternative forms of propulsion to move vessels between the Red Sea and Mediterranean Sea, occurring at a time of progress in the development of larger steam powered ships. As ship sizes increased, only self-powered large ships could transit the Suez Canal. The historical frequency of powerful crosswinds blowing across the canal needs to be examined and evaluation needs to establish whether climate change would increase the future frequency of such winds.

Ship size

Increased international trade has warranted the development of larger ships to carry the trade, with some of the largest ships ever built now sailing along the canal and with even larger ships expected in the future. While river cross currents have pushed comparatively small vessels sideways to block navigation channels, it was a powerful crosswind that pushed on the massive side area of a large container ship that caused the same result. Large ships sailing along the Suez Canal are becoming the norm rather than the exception as smaller vessels built many years ago, come due for scrapping.

The control bridge of the Ever Given is located far behind the bow area, with several rows and levels of containers stacked above deck and almost to the windows of the bridge. While a ship pilot would have a view forward for considerable distance ahead of the ship from the bridge, a sand storm is alleged to have greatly reduced that forward visibility. Projected future weather conditions in the region that include the effect of changing weather patterns could indicate the expected future frequency of such wind storms. The shipping industry would need to respond any future increased frequency.

Redundant additional equipment

While the likelihood of a repeat of the incident involving the Ever Given is comparatively rare, the financial losses that such an incident causes and could cause to the world economy requires the implementation of preventative measures that include the installation of redundant technology. The retrofit of bow thrusters into large ships is one method of responding to future crosswinds pushing a ship off-course, perhaps ready for deployment from when a ship first enters the canal until it leaves. Future regulation could require that the thruster be ready for deployment when a ship sails through the Suez Canal.

Changing weather conditions could increase the frequency of future dust storms that would obscure forward visibility from a ship’s bridge. The installation of retractable sonar technology at the bow area could assist ship navigation along the canal during powerful crosswinds. 

Alerting ships

In the future and beyond the present blockage incident, the canal authority would need to issue an alert to ships approaching the canal and sailing along the canal of weather conditions that threaten to reduce forward visibility of the canal from ship bridges. If future crosswinds cause a ship to deviate from its intended course, the bow thruster would be on standby and ready for deployment within a few seconds of course deviation.

The combination of advanced weather alerts and ready-to-deploy bow thrusters offer the possibility of responding to a weather phenomenon that resulted in blocking the canal to traffic. While future plans call for twin parallel navigation channels, a ship gone sideways - blocking one the future twin channels - would still have the potential to adversely affect international trade. The canal authority would need to re-examine established long-term weather patterns to determine the future frequency of cross winds capable of pushing a ship off-course and into the canal bank.

The Trans-Arctic Options

The closure of the Suez Canal has prompted Russia to invite shipping companies to sail via their side of the trans-Arctic navigation passage. Changing weather patterns have increased summertime temperatures across the Arctic region with increased melting of sea ice, allowing summer time navigation between the Bering Strait and the Norwegian Sea. However, limited draft restricts the size of ship that may sail via the Russian passage while the Canadian trans-Arctic passages through Viscount Melville Sound and Lancaster Sound offer much greater navigation draft, with a small window of summer sailing opportunity becoming available for large ships.

Both the Suez Canal and Panama Canal face the prospect of future summertime competition from the trans-Arctic routes. It is perhaps fortunate for Egypt that the canal blockage incident occurred toward the end of the northern winter season instead of during the mid to late northern summer. Ship companies could then seek to sail via available trans-Arctic routes. Changing weather patterns causing changes in northern summer wind conditions occurring between the Red and Mediterranean Seas have the potential to cause a repeat canal blockage incident and result in a convoy of cargo ships sailing via the Arctic.

Conclusions

The combination of changing weather conditions between the Mediterranean Sea and Red Sea along with larger ships sailing via the Suez Canal increases the risk of a future incident of a blocked navigation channel. However, the future opening of a second parallel navigation channel provides a means by which to assure that ships will still be able to make the transit across the canal, though on extended schedules. A repeat canal blockage incident occurring when the trans-Arctic channels are open for navigation would divert maritime traffic via that route if the Suez Canal offers only a single navigation channel.

The Suez Canal Authority will need to implement and administer regulations to greatly lessen the possibility of a repeat channel blockage occurrence.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.