In late 2020, a ship traveling from China to Long Beach, California was hit by a violent storm. Nearly 2,000 containers were lost or damaged in the Pacific Ocean when a swell caused the ship to roll and dislodged the contents. This was a loss on a massive scale; in the past 12 years, total container losses had only averaged around 1,400 per year.
The shipping industry is at the mercy of the weather, especially when it comes to extreme weather events.
Hurricane Season 2020 ended on November 30th with a record-breaking:
- 30 named tropical storms
- 13 hurricanes
- Six major hurricanes
However, storms continued to form long after this date. The long tropical storm season meant that shipping ports and terminals had to be on continual high alert to keep vessels, operations, and crew safe.
These kinds of extreme weather conditions not only affect safety, but also timely operations, costs, and customer satisfaction. This is exactly why shipping companies need to take control and get ahead of the damage with weather intelligence.
Balancing Safety With Operational Efficiency
Representing roughly 90% of global trade, shipping is a highly complex business with tightly run schedules and little room for error. The volume of goods being shipped by sea is increasing. By 2050, shipments of raw materials are likely to double to Western economies and quadruple to other regions while global freight trade could grow between 330-380%. This requires companies to run an even tighter ship than ever before.
Yet reliability has long been an issue when it comes to shipping, with Trans-Pacific and Asia-North America West Coast schedule reliability falling below 40% in 2019. This lack of reliability is due both to congestion in origin ports in Asia and Europe, as well as fog delays in Shanghai and winter weather problems earlier this year in Europe. Vessels often arrive one or two days late at large ports, which means ports have to assign extra crews and unload ships late into the night.
Weather risks to port operations and shipping include:
- Low visibility caused by fog
- High winds and sudden wind shifts
- Waves and swells
- Tropical cyclones
- High rainfall
- Changes in sea and water levels
While most cargo ships can withstand extreme weather without having to alter their schedule, hurricanes and cyclones can make it too dangerous to sail. The Port of Houston was forced to close for six days in August 2017 due to catastrophic rainfall caused by Hurricane Harvey, as an example.
Deciding when to shut down facilities and cancel or delay shipments due to adverse weather conditions is a difficult balance between keeping crew and goods safe and ensuring profitability. This is especially true in the age when extra COVID-19 safety checks and protocols already add more time to the shipping process.
These lead to stoppages and delays, increased fuel consumption, damage to equipment and cargo, and disruption in supply chain operations.
But poor weather does not just lead to delays in delivery, it also has a significant financial impact.
The Costs of Delays Quickly Add Up
When cargo ships are hit by a storm en route to their destination, or when they are delayed in port, they often try to speed up the subsequent journey to make up time. The faster a ship sails, the more fuel it uses, and the more it costs to make the journey. If the ship has to deviate from its route and increase its journey time, this leads to further delays and even higher fuel costs.
If heavy winds hit a port, then they may have to stop operating cranes while you also have to pay to store containers for the extra time they are stuck in port. When a cargo ship encounters a storm during the journey, they may have to break up the journey and stop at another port while the bad weather passes. When a ship is stuck in the port, the carrier has to pay extra rent for the berth and to store cargo.
Another area that can put a huge strain on the financial side of shipping is damage to cargo either at the port or when it is en route to its destination. The value of improperly managing port operations is in the tens of millions at best, and more than $100M at worst. The main reasons why containers get damaged, while variable, are more often than not related to the weather.
Ships often carry perishable goods, as well. Items such as meat, fish, dairy products, fruit, vegetables, and pharmaceuticals are often transported via the sea. Any change in temperature or humidity can cause food to ripen too fast or to perish quickly. Delays lead to food going bad before it reaches its destination.
Sea conditions also play a part. Choppy waters can cause food to move about, and items such as glass bottles to fall and break. Shipping these goods in favorable sea conditions is crucial to ensuring they reach their destination in one piece and don’t end up as food waste.
Here are just a few of the most commonly reported weather-related container claims:
- Dropped containers: Common occurrences during high winds
- Heat damage: Not managing temperatures properly
- Delayed cargo: Happens during unexpected weather at port
- Condensation inside a container: Especially if the containers are being loaded at high humidity
- Temperature changes while in-port: Increased condensation inside the container causing cargo to get wet
- Uncovered containers: During rain or extreme weather events
- Reefer containers damaged: Due to not being plugged in because of operational failure or lack of energy supply planning
The Human Factor
The safety of cargo is important, but so is the safety of the ship itself and the crew at the port and on the boat. Ports need to decide if the ship should stay in berth when there is bad weather or whether they should ride out the storm at sea.
While ensuring port uptime is key, it’s important to take action to ensure that all your crew members are safe in the face of poor weather conditions. You don’t want to send your crew out to repair equipment in the middle of a storm, so you need to know when best to schedule maintenance to ensure both your boats and personnel stay safe.
This requires an understanding of weather-related risk as well as the limitations in poor weather and requires fast and efficient communications. You need to be able to alert your team to incoming unsafe weather conditions, and quickly and efficiently get them safety.
Port Operations Logistics
The logistics and equipment side of port operations also bear the brunt of extreme weather. High winds mean port operators often have to suspend crane operations due to safety concerns.
Here are some examples of what happens to cranes and the cargo they are lifting when exposed to extreme weather:
- A strong wind can destabilize a container when it is being lifted and the crane operator may be unable to control it. These loads weigh many tonnes and can cause severe damage if they hit equipment or structures.
- There is a risk of dropping heavy cargo. If this happens, the ship will likely suffer significant damage or it may even sink.
- Wind can cause drag forces on ships. Accident risks are higher when a container and a ship are moving drastically in relation to each other.
- Seaports keep equipment and cargo close to the crane to maximize the space available. This can result in collateral damage.
Monitoring wind conditions is crucial in ensuring that cranes can be operated safely. However, most weather forecasts only provide general data for the area and do not include short-term severe weather events.
Take wind gust data for the Port of New York on April 29th. Look at the spike as illustrated by the green line below. On that day, wind gusts unexpectedly spiked from the low 20 MPH to as high as 50 MPH throughout the morning and day.
If you knew those wind gusts were going to hit ahead of time, then you could plan ahead and avoid any unnecessary risk or damages. But your average weather forecast wouldn’t have picked that spike up.
That’s why real-time impactful weather intelligence is crucial for the intermodal industry.
Supply Chain Disruption
When port operations and logistics are disrupted, it can have considerable knock-on effects on the supply chain and customer satisfaction.
Under normal circumstances, the shipping industry can mitigate delays and supply chain bottlenecks. This includes using night haulage, increasing speed, rerouting, or using other means of transport. But when bad weather is at play, you run out of options quickly.
In 2018, stronger and more frequent typhoons forced the closure of the port of Shanghai, the world’s busiest container gateway, for a full 27 days. These closures threw off schedule reliability while a lack of excess terminal capacity made it difficult to speed up cargo operations to make up for lost time. The options for playing catch up were limited.
Even if you’ve planned in advance and you think you’ve got a handle on the weather, a local storm might come along that takes you by surprise. Maybe this local storm affects not just your operations, but that of your trucking or railroad partners.
When shipping goods, you can’t take an approach of “out of sight, out of mind”. Just because it’s blazing sunshine where you are, doesn’t mean that there won’t be weather-related issues when your goods are on the way to the port or on their onward journey.
If you’ve factored in extra lead times, the unpredictable nature of the weather can still hamper these efforts, both at the time the event happens and for months afterward. When water levels in the Rhine river in Europe were severely affected by drought, barge shipping stopped completely for four months. Even when shipping resumed, there were further delays due to continuing low water levels.
It’s also important to take into account climate data, rather than just weather information. Maybe you’re shipping goods via Florida in hurricane season. If you are aware of expected or potential weather problems in the area your shipments will be moving through, then you can better anticipate possible delays and longer delivery times.
This allows you to keep your shipping partners and customers informed every step of the way. Your partners can better plan the onward journey and your customers know when they can expect their shipment, plus the reason for any delay.
But what happens to your cargo if it’s unable to reach its destination port or staff or unable to unload it when it arrives? Ports and countries have different rules regarding cargo, and these can be especially strict when it ends up at a different port from the one intended.
Even the best-laid contingency plans can go awry when the unexpected happens. That’s why you need more sophisticated information to help you prepare.
Moving from Assumptions to Prediction
While shipping companies already take precautions when there is bad weather on the horizon, they still make assumptions rather than informed decisions as to how they should react to weather information. But as weather is unpredictable, the fewer assumptions you make, the better.
You need to be armed with the necessary information to understand what is coming and the exact scale.
Plotting the optimal shipping routes involves more than just plotting the fastest course from A to B. It’s a complex activity that requires careful planning. Some hazards only affect specific areas, while the weather is unpredictable and can move fast.
That’s why you need accurate information ahead of time so you can make the right decisions that:
- Maximize crew safety and comfort
- Consume the minimum amount of fuel
- Ensure you meet ETAs
- Boost profitability
Being able to access hyper-local, short-term weather data can help plan the best route to avoid any weather events while optimizing both time and fuel. The more data you have access to, and the more you put that into context in terms of how you operate and previous trends, the better.
This data helps you understand the true impact of the weather on your business across multiple locations and a variety of weather conditions. You can move from making assumptions to making informed predictions with weather intelligence software.
Why You Need Weather Intelligence Software
It’s important to be proactive rather than reactive. That’s exactly what weather intelligence software allows you to do. Rather than reacting to a bad forecast, you can plan days in advance and ensure operations are safe, efficient, and save money. In fact, you can stop worrying about the forecast entirely.
With the Tomorrow.io weather intelligence platform, you can see exactly when, where, and how the weather is going to impact your shipping operations, and all in one dashboard. Instead of scrambling to adapt to the weather, you’ll have time to prepare, automate, and adapt, all while following your specific guidelines or protocols for employees.
Weather intelligence software helps you better run and plan your shipping operations by providing:
- 24/7 hyperlocal minute-by-minute weather insights down to the vessel
- Ability to monitor weather impacts, such as the wind direction or lightning historically, in real-time, and forecasted
- Predictive loading and unloading times to improve efficiency and reduce safety risks
- Increase throughput and reduce costs by the millions from weather impacted operations
- Protect your cranes, vessels, and cargo from damage
- Optimize labor scheduling and reduce safety risks
Timing is critical when it comes to bad weather. The more information you have, the better you can plan. With weather intelligence software, you can take your planning to the next level and turn insights into actions.