Since the end November, here’s some of what sank to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean: vacuum cleaners; Kate Spade Accessories; at least $ 150,000 of frozen shrimp; and three shipping containers full of children’s clothing. “If anyone has any investment in high seas salvage, there’s a great product out there,” Richard Westenberger, CFO of children’s clothing brand Carter’s recently told a conference.
You can blame the weather, a surge in US imports linked to the pandemic, or a phenomenon known as parametric rollover.
In total, at least 2,980 containers have fallen from freighters in the Pacific since November, in at least six separate incidents. This is more than double the number of containers lost annually between 2008 and 2019, according to the World Shipping Council.
Shipping companies tend to blame the weather. The Maersk Essen, which lost 750 containers while sailing from China to Los Angeles in mid-January, “experienced rough seas on its way across the North Pacific,” Maersk said in a press release. (The company did not respond to WIRED’s questions.) The Maersk Eindhoven experienced “severe weather” in mid-February which contributed to a power failure throughout the ship in the midst of a storm; he lost 260 containers. The one sunset, bound for the port of Long Beach from southern China, lost more than 1,800 containers in what the company called “high winds and heavy swells” in November. This is expected to prove one of the costliest losses of all time.
The harsh weather conditions were exacerbated by increased traffic to the United States. U.S. container imports rose 30% in December, compared with the same month a year earlier, according to IHS Markit. “It’s a cargo import boom beyond anything we’ve seen before,” says Lars Jensen, CEO of SeaIntelligence Consulting, which advises clients in the container shipping industry.
This has led to a shortage of containers, especially empty containers stranded in North America when needed in Asia. So it’s possible that shippers have put into service older, well-used containers, which are more likely to have faulty or corroded stowage or locking mechanisms, says Ian Woods, ocean freight lawyer and partner. from Clyde & Co. Crews are tired, stretched out from the extra work, so they can’t wrap and secure containers as well as they would if they were well rested.
In addition, the ships are packed. “Not only do we have big ships, in bad weather, but we have, in many cases, ships that are jam-packed,” says Jensen, the shipping consultant. A full container ship can be the length of four football fields, capable of carrying up to 24,000 20-foot-long containers stacked five or six high. These are more likely to experience a phenomenon called parametric rolling, a rare but frightening violent movement that can send blocks of containers falling onto the deck or into the sea.
Parametric roll occurs when the time between two adjacent waves suddenly aligns with a ship’s natural roll frequency, which is more likely to occur in bad weather. Adrian Onas, professor of naval architecture at the Webb Institute, calls it a “design heart attack” – hard to detect when it starts, then devastating. On board, the parametric roll looks like a brutal, terrifying side-to-side movement, rapidly changing from a few degrees to 35 or 40 degrees in each direction.