Extreme Maritime Weather: Improving Safety of Life at Sea

Extreme Maritime Weather: Improving Safety of Life at Sea

By Joseph Sienkiewicz, NOAA National Weather Service (NWS), Ocean Prediction Center, and Thomas J. Cuff, NOAA National Weather Service; Office of Observations; Chair, WMO Standing Committee-Marine Meteorological and Oceanographic Services (SC-MMO); Member, WMO-IOC Joint Collaborative Board (JCB)

Incidents in recent years have highlighted the hazards of extreme weather at sea, emphasizing the need for action to better protect life and property aboard vessels. Hurricane force winds and phenomenal waves, in particular, endanger sea-going vessels regardless of size. Ships operating in high latitudes also face the threat of freezing spray, in addition to the more well-known hazards created by icebergs and sea ice. Despite the availability of high-resolution satellite imagery, increasingly skilful numerical weather prediction models and improved forecasting services, in the twenty-first century vessels continue to be lost at sea. 

GOES-16 geo-colour imagery

GOES-16 geo-colour imagery of 3 intense extratropical cyclones in the north Atlantic Ocean on 17 January 2020. The western most cyclone, south of Newfoundland, generated a broad area of hurricane force winds. The cyclones west of Greenland and in the eastern Atlantic both generated storm force winds. (Source: NOAA)

The loss of the SS El Faro near the Bahama Islands, with all 33 souls aboard, during Hurricane Joaquin in 2015 was particularly notable. The follow-on investigation exposed problems with the decision processes aboard the ship, particularly the proper use of hurricane predictions and the criticality of timely information in rapidly evolving weather. In 2019, the tug Bourbon Rhode perished in Hurricane Lorenzo in the Atlantic Ocean, losing 11 of its crew of 14. In 2020, Typhoon Maysak claimed the Gulf Livestock 1 in the East China Sea, with just 2 of 43 crew members surviving; nearly 6 000 live cattle were lost.

Extratropical cyclones at sea can be just as dangerous as the extreme winds and waves generated by hurricanes. These systems traverse the mid and high latitudes and are often larger in size and with a faster forward motion than tropical cyclones, causing conditions at sea to rapidly change. In the North Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, hurricane force winds associated with extratropical cyclones occur more often than hurricanes. In February 2016, the cruise ship Anthem of the Seas, en route from New York to Port Canaveral, Florida, experienced extreme winds well-above 100 knots and waves up to 15 metres high in an explosively intensifying winter storm off the southeastern U.S. coast. Unable to overcome the rapidly changing conditions, the vessel was drawn into the storm, suffering a partial loss of propulsion and requiring repairs upon return to port.

More recently, in March 2019, cruise ship Viking Sky lost propulsion power in rough seas off the rocky Norwegian coast, dragging both anchors for a time. Fortunately, the anchors held nearshore, allowing the evacuation of approximately 460 of its passengers via helicopter prior to being towed to port. Initial findings indicated that the diesel generators shutdown from a loss of lubricating oil suction due, in part, to the vessel’s pitching and rolling in heavy seas.

There was a series of fatal ship losses in the South China Sea during December 2020. Near the end of December 2020, the fishing vessel Yong Yu Sing #18, operating in the open waters of the North Pacific, was lost about 530 nautical miles northeast of Midway Island, in a very strong storm of hurricane force intensity. While the vessel survived the storm and was located, its crew of 10 appeared to have abandoned ship; none were found.

There was a marked increase in container loss and damage in late 2020, particularly, over the North Pacific Ocean. Most noteworthy, the ONE Apus en route from Yantian, China, to Long Beach, U.S., in late November was well south of a large storm of hurricane force strength yet still experienced phenomenal container loss and damage. Over 1 800 containers were lost overboard, with others damaged, far exceeding any previous documented container loss without losing the ship itself.

While many losses at sea can be attributed to extreme winds and waves, ice accretion on the superstructure and masts of vessels operating in the high latitudes can destabilize them, causing them to capsize. Freezing spray and the subsequent ice accretion may have been a significant factor in the sinking of the both the Scandies Rose off Alaska with five lives lost in late December 2019, and the Russian trawler Onega in the Barents Sea with seventeen lives lost in December 2020.

Damage to the container ship ONE Apus

Damage to the container ship ONE Apus, 8 December 2020 (Source: Twitter/@nobuya0827)

Extreme maritime weather continues to contribute to the loss of cargo, vessels, and crews. However, investigations reveal a number of causative factors in addition to the weather. Under the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Convention, the WMO and IMO have collectively worked to reduce the vulnerability of the maritime community in the event of hazardous or extreme maritime weather. Despite this, there continues to be an unacceptable loss of life and property at sea. In view of this, and recognizing the growing demand for marine services that communicate impact-based forecasts for better decision-making, in October 2019 the WMO and IMO jointly held the first International Symposium on “Extreme Maritime Weather: Towards Safety of Life at Sea and a Sustainable Blue Economy” at IMO Headquarters in London. Over 200 participants from over 40 different countries attended, representing private and public sectors, including government ministers and ambassadors. Representatives from the WMO, IMO, IOC, marine weather service providers, and various sectors of the maritime industry explored how to improve the value chain from the collection of marine weather and ocean observations through to forecasting and the dissemination of marine forecasts and services to users and stakeholders.

Working together, the WMO and IMO seek a wide range of societal benefits, including:

  • a reduction in the loss of life and property at sea and along coastlines,
  • improved operational efficiency and reduced emissions through optimal ship voyage routing,
  • environmental monitoring and forecasting to aid coastal management, and
  • more effective environmental emergency response efforts.

The next WMO/IMO International Symposium will be hosted by Indonesia, hopefully in 2022.