According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, as much as 90% of global trade involves shipping goods by sea, and maritime trade volumes are expected to almost triple by 2050. Nearly 60% of the traded goods, including imported fruits and appliances, are packed into containers, while the hull stores commodities like grains and oils.

Maritime operations, however, tend to witness severe impacts from extreme weather conditions, leading to delays and disruptions. In the worst possible instance, this results in cargo loss and severe damage to the vessel. Some of the biggest maritime accidents have been caused by adverse weather.

Common Weather Conditions That Affect Shipping

Unique weather patterns occur in some of the world’s great lakes and oceans, and forecasting the collective impact of these natural forces is never easy. Here, storm buildups happen quickly, and they strike before the crew has sufficient time to react. Ship workers become exposed to such adverse weather impacts and risk considerable personal injury. Such drastic deterioration in ambient weather conditions may also cause the ship to capsize or run aground.

Some of the commonly observed weather risks that shipping crews have to deal with are:

  • High winds, hail, lightning, and heavy waves generated due to hurricanes and storms.
  • Navigating a ship is difficult in heavy fog and increases the chances of collisions.
  • Surface ice and icebergs are a threat to the ship’s hull.
  • Ice accumulation on the vessel makes it unstable.
  • Waterspouts and water storms cause flooding on the decks and may even sweep the crew members overboard.
  • Maritime winds cause swollen waves that are responsible for capsizing ships and throwing crew overboard.
  • Freezing weather or extreme heat creates adverse weather conditions for the crew, often leading to hypothermia and heat strokes.

Strong Winds and Vessel Performance

Several recent studies have found that global wind speeds have increased significantly. While this may be good news for the renewable energy industry, strong winds challenge maritime trade. High, swollen waves caused by these strong winds are a risk to large ships as they may result in cargo containers getting lost or damaged, leading to unwanted delays.

Wind speed and direction determine whether it can benefit or harm shipping operations.

  • Headwinds: When the wind acts opposite to the direction of the vessel, it interferes with the surge and provides strong resistance to the ship’s heading.
  • Aft or stern wind: Longitudinal winds acting from the stern of the ship boost the headway and help the vessel travel faster without additional power consumption. The shipping industry considers this extremely desirable.
  • Beam winds: Winds flowing perpendicular to the vessel are counterproductive as they cause the ship to move sideways, making it difficult to steer the ship in the desired direction.
  • Oblique winds: These flow in an arbitrary direction and are the most common at sea.

Here are some of the unwanted strong wind effects on vessels.

  • High-sided ships such as large tankers, container ships, or large passenger ships provide a large surface for the wind to strike. Amidst strong winds, manoeuvring the vessel can prove a major challenge. Such conditions are common in and around harbours, and often lead to delays in berthing and sailing of the ships.
  • In high winds, containers swing while loaded or discharged, making operations challenging. Besides posing risks to other containers and the ship, these also make it tough for the gantry operators to keep the swinging containers in one place and secure them onto the ship.
  • Ships berthed at the quay may move a couple of metres in strong windy conditions, making managing cargo operations on board difficult.
  • Strong winds in the harbour often cause ships to break their mooring lines, damaging nearby ships.
  • Vessels consume more fuel when traveling against strong headwinds. However, these can be beneficial when blowing the stern side.

How Waves Impact Vessel Performance

Irrespective of their size, wave impact on navigation is significant. By pushing against the vessels and causing the ship to move away from a straight path, waves reduce the efficiency of ship movement. They also influence route mapping, travel speeds, and fuel economy while physically damaging the ships. Waves are also responsible for damages to the hull and shipping equipment and may even lead to severe damage to shipping containers as well as loss of cargo.

Some of the maritime industry challenges caused by rough seas are as follows:

  • Rough seas can damage cargo on board a ship. When the ship rolls heavily due to high waves, the cargo shifts, causing the vessel to list dangerously in one direction.
  • Heavy swell around the harbour often makes it challenging for pilots to get on or off the vessels. In such situations, the harbour may be forced to close down temporarily, causing delays to shipping operations.
  • Heavy seas often cause harbour installations to be damaged.
  • A deadly combination of high waves and strong winds can force ships to be driven ashore, causing severe damage and, eventually, causing the vessel to capsize.

Impact of Temperature and Humidity on Maritime Operations

Another factor that greatly influences vessel performance is the temperature and humidity conditions. Humidity and salt, when combined, aggressively cause corrosion and rusting of marine structures. Failure to implement proper measures for corrosion prevention on vessels can dramatically reduce the operating lifetime of shipping equipment and machinery while also impacting the reliability of electronic components on board.

Fluctuating temperature and humidity impact the cargo just as much as the vessel. Every year, billions of dollars worth of cargo shipments get damaged upon exposure to condensation inside the shipping containers, formed due to temperature fluctuations as the ship travels through diverse climatic regions and conditions. 

During the day, direct sunlight causes the metal walls to become hot, and the inside temperature rises significantly, while during the night time, it drops drastically. Moisture evaporating from the cargo surface during the daytime condenses on the cooler ceiling and container walls when the temperature drops. Often, these rain down on the goods stored inside the cargo containers in a phenomenon known as container rain, which may lead to moisture damage.

To deal with this challenge, some of the measures that can be taken are:

  • Maintain good airflow and ventilation inside the shipping containers.
  • Pack desiccating agents inside the containers to absorb excess moisture.
  • Use vapour-resistant packaging or shrink wraps.
  • Replace conventional wooden pallets with dry wood or non-wood pallets.

Precipitation Hazards to Vessel Safety

Rain, snow, and ice accumulation usually wreak havoc on a ship’s hydrostatic properties. While rain and snowfall are not severe precipitation hazards, when the water droplets freeze, they become a risk factor for the vessel. Ice also forms as a layer along the sides when the ship is sprayed with water from the front during its voyage. This is predominant in areas normally experiencing sub-zero temperatures and must be carefully chalked out during a route planning optimization exercise.

When ice accumulates on various parts of the ship, such as the deck, housing tops, and various other places, it raises the centre of gravity due to the higher weight and uneven distribution. As the vessel draft increases, ice formation increases, which also impacts stability. Consequently, the freeboard reduces, with greater buoyant forces requiring to be generated as a countermeasure.

Some of the safety measures for vessels operating in icy conditions to deal with ice accumulation are as follows:

  • Avoiding Polar Lows: These rapidly developing cyclones are difficult to predict. They form in cold air and carry high winds, which increase the icing intensity. To avoid icing situations, it is important to be aware of the possibility of a Polar Low on the planned shipping route.
  • Proper manoeuvring: Ships that encounter icing situations should look for suitable cover either in a harbour or along the downwind side of a land mass. Though the winds are likely strong, waves won’t carry the same intensity, reducing the water spray across the vessel.
  • Applying preventive coating: Special ice-resistant coatings can be used along the vessel’s sides to act as water repellents and limit icing. This allows easy removal of the limited amount of ice that forms over the coating. However, they need to be reapplied frequently to maintain their efficacy.

How Latest Advancements in Weather Forecasting Are Helping the Shipping Industry

Real-time weather data has become critical for route planning optimization in the shipping industry and is becoming increasingly advanced thanks to technological developments. As weather routing improves, it also helps make maritime operations more efficient by reducing fuel usage, improving safety standards, minimizing travel delays, and helping reduce shipping risks.

Though straightforward, weather routing is a complex process that uses weather forecasting for vessels, cargo requirements, and ship characteristics to determine the best possible voyage route. It does not necessarily reduce time, as the focus is mainly on optimizing the weather risks so that the crew remains safe and the vessel completes the journey with optimum fuel consumption.

Shipping companies can benefit by implementing the latest weather forecasting technology and incorporating real-time weather data into their planning.

  • Reduced operating costs: By consuming less fuel and delivering goods on time, shipping companies can make significant savings, avoid additional penalties and costs, and improve their profits in an industry with tight margins.
  • Better safety standards: Bad weather often puts crews at risk and can significantly damage the ship if not planned for properly. With real-time monitoring, the navigation team can reroute the vessel if needed to avoid extreme weather conditions at sea.
  • Comply with decarbonizing requirements: The ship can operate more efficiently by planning a route that avoids adverse weather conditions. Optimizing the travel routes reduces fuel consumption, which in turn helps minimize the carbon footprint.

Final Words

The shipping industry must adapt to ongoing climate changes to provide a safe operating environment for crew members. While weather conditions have always been challenging, they are expected to become even tougher, with vessels requiring greater maintenance in adverse situations. 

Companies must implement suitable safety measures to maintain the best standards and comply with industry requirements. Implementing a ship safety management system can prove beneficial by helping your business gain insights on safety measures for vessels so that your crew can focus on more important things on board. 

As a shipping company, you need to explore the adoption of the latest technology to benefit from real-time weather updates that will optimize planning and operating costs. You could also consider hiring professionals to help you plan and optimize your shipping routes effectively. With these measures, you can effectively manage climate risks and prevalent challenges, running a safe, efficient, and profitable business.