NOAA's Response and Restoration Blog

An inside look at the science of cleaning up and fixing the mess of marine pollution

How Will Climate Change, New Technologies, and Shifting Trade Patterns Affect Global Shipping?

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Large waves crash on a huge cargo ship aground on a beach.

After a major storm, a massive bulk cargo ship, the Pasha Bulker, ran aground on a beach in Australia in 2007. (Credit: Tim J. Keegan/Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license)

This is a guest post by University of Washington graduate students Megan Desillier, Seth Sivinski, and Nicole White.

A warming climate is opening up new shipping routes through the Arctic Ocean as summer sea ice shrinks. Developing technologies allow mega-ships unprecedented in size and cargo to take to the seas. North America is increasingly exporting oil, shifting global trade patterns.

Each of these issues poses a suite of potential challenges for safely shipping commodities across the ocean and around the world. Out of these challenges, new risks are emerging in marine transportation that NOAA and the maritime industry need to consider.

Our group of three graduate students at the University of Washington, with the support of the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation (ITOPF) and NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, are looking to understand how the world’s shipping dynamic has changed in recent years and how these emerging challenges in marine transportation will affect that dynamic. And then we aim to answer: how should NOAA and ITOPF best prepare for responding to these new risks?

In the course of this research project, we will attempt to identify and assess significant emerging risks in marine transportation that have the potential to lead to oil or chemical spills. We are focused on three drivers of emerging risks in the global shipping network: developing technologies, changing patterns of marine trade, and shifting environmental conditions due to climate change. Each of these drivers will be considered within three distinct time frames: the present, 4-10 years from now, and more than 10 years from now.

Risky Business

Fishing vessl half in water and half on a damaged building.

Hurricane Katrina’s storm surge left this fishing vessel on top of a local fish dealer shop in Mississippi. Even small changes in sea levels can have major effects on storm surge. How will a changing climate affect affect global shipping? (NOAA)

The emerging risks that we will identify and assess come from analyzing the network of global cargo ship movements, focusing on the emerging usage of the Northern Sea Route, Northwest Passage, Trans-Arctic Route, the Panama Canal, the Suez Canal, and the possibility of a future Nicaraguan Canal.

At this point in our project, we have come across several interesting findings relating to each of our three main research areas. Within the area of developing technology, for example, we are examining the emerging risk of “mega-vessels,” which include “mega-containers,” “mega-tankers,” and “mega-bulkers,” depending on their cargo type. These mega-vessels are massive and measure significantly larger than previous, standard-sized vessels. For example, any container ship over 10,000 twenty-foot equivalent units, or TEUs, can be considered a “mega-ship.” However, the largest mega-vessel to date can handle 18,000 TEUs.

Bulk carriers are used to transport unpackaged cargo in bulk, such as grain, ore, and cement. These ships have also grown in size to the new mega-bulkers, which can handle over 80,000 deadweight tons (DWT), as opposed to the most common, smaller-sized bulk carrier that can handle 60,000 DWTs. In addition, ships are carrying riskier cargoes, which, depending on the cargo, can lead to a dangerous phenomenon known as liquefaction. In general, liquefaction can occur during events like earthquakes, when intense shaking causes “water-saturated sediment temporarily [to lose] strength and [act] as a fluid.”

This phenomenon can also happen on board ships when a cargo, like nickel-ore, becomes wet either before being loaded or while on board and then liquefies due to the ship’s movements. When that happens, the liquefied cargo quickly destabilizes the ship and can lead to it sinking. There are numerous cases of cargo liquefaction occurring on standard-sized bulk carrier ships, which can result in the loss of both crew and vessel.

Context Clues

We also have incorporated several elements to give social-economic, technological, and environmental context to our research of emerging maritime risks. The social-economic element considers the form of cargoes being shipped, environmental resources potentially affected by pollution, available industry tools, and the types of vessels involved.

As for the technical element, we’ll focus on understanding the gap in the salvage of mega-vessels and vessels in the Arctic region, the increased use of floating production storage and offloading vessels (FPSOs, which act like semi-mobile floating fuel storage tanks), risks from vessel automation technologies, and finally, the increased congestion of ships in high-risk areas and choke points, such as the narrow Bering Strait between Alaska and Russia.

For the environmental context, we’ll examine changing environmental conditions that may present additional risks to marine transportation, such as the increased intensity and frequency of storms, sea level rise, and Arctic sea ice melt.

We’ll also consider some market drivers, such as the North American oil trade and the International Maritime Organization’s Polar Code (which is an international shipping safety code for polar waters), in a broad global context. However, our research will not directly consider organizational, regulatory, and market contextual elements in any significant detail.

Relevance and Risk

After we analyze and categorize potential risks, we’ll consider the materiality, or relevance, of our identified risks and the types of incidents that could result. We’ll be connecting how important our identified risks are to the potential losses and damages to vessels, cargoes, and the environment resulting from specific types of incidents. For example, if larger ships are carrying larger quantities of oil as fuel or cargo, then damage to a ship’s hull could spill more oil and result in greater potential environmental impacts.

Stay tuned for updates on our research over the next few months.

Megan Desillier, Seth Sivinski, and Nicole White are Master’s Candidates at the University of Washington (UW) in the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs working with faculty advisors Robert Pavia and Thomas M. Leschine. The team is researching emerging risks in marine transportation for the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation (ITOPF) and is being provided additional assistance in their research from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The students are completing this research over the course of an academic year as part of the thesis/capstone requirement for the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs at the UW. Our team would like to thank our sponsor, ITOPF, as well as NOAA for providing additional assistance. To contact the authors, please email Robert Pavia at bobpavia@uw.edu.

The views expressed in this post reflect those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official views of NOAA or the U.S. federal government.

Photo of Pasha Bulker courtesy of Tim J. Keegan and used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Author: Office of Response and Restoration

The National Ocean Service's Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) provides scientific solutions for marine pollution. A part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), OR&R is a center of expertise in preparing for, evaluating, and responding to threats to coastal environments. These threats could be oil and chemical spills, releases from hazardous waste sites, or marine debris.

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