Thousands of shipping containers have fallen overboard in recent months as massive new ships, demand for products from overseas during the pandemic as well as weather this winter combined to make ocean transport more challenging.
About 226 million containers are transported via ship each year with cargo valued at more than $4 trillion, according to the World Shipping Council. An average of 1,382 containers were lost each year between 2008 and 2019.
But nearly double that number, the highest in 7 years, went overboard in five incidents during just a two month period from Nov. 30, 2020, to Jan. 31, 2021, trade magazine American Shipper reported.
The bulk of the more than 2,675 containers lost in that time came from two ships that reportedly encountered bad weather in the North Pacific. The first, a vessel named One Apus, lost 1,816 containers as it sailed into a storm about 1,600 nautical miles northwest of Hawaii on Nov 30. It's one of the biggest such losses on record, according to American Shipper.
Another ship, the Maersk Essen, lost about 750 containers on its way from Xiamen, China, to the Port of Los Angeles on Jan. 16.
Those months are among the roughest in the North Pacific in any given year, but winds this winter were stronger than usual, Todd Crawford, chief meteorologist for The Weather Company, told weather.com on Wednesday.
Crawford analyzed data going back to 1948, and found that this winter had the second strongest winds on record. The winds weren't linked to any particular trend or weather pattern, he said.
"To be honest, the strongest winds in the North Pacific typically happen during El Niño winters, so it was a bit surprising that this happened in a La Niña winter," Crawford said. "However, it is important to note that winds weakened dramatically in February, and the really strong winds were confined to late December into January, so it wasn't an all-winter thing like it was in the El Niño winter of 2015-16."
Weather wasn't the only factor at play.
There are more than 6,000 container ships operating at sea on a continuous basis, according to the WSC. They carry just about every consumer product manufactured overseas that you can imagine, as well as private shipments of personal property.
Container ships are getting bigger every year, and that means they're carrying more and more cargo. The two largest container ships in the world made their debut in 2020, according to Marine Insight.
At the same time, demand surprisingly surged for products as people spent more time at home during the coronavirus pandemic.
"At the start of the coronavirus disease of 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, expectations were that seaborne trade, including containerized trade, would experience a strong downturn," according to a report from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. "However, changes in consumption and shopping patterns triggered by the pandemic, including a surge in electronic commerce, as well as lockdown measures, have in fact led to increased import demand for manufactured consumer goods, a large part of which is moved in shipping containers."
The use of shipping containers continued to increase as lockdown measures lessened and stimulus packages and other factors fueled further consumer demand, the report said, adding that the situation was exacerbated by port congestion.
Experts said all of that set the scene for more losses.
“The increased movement of containers means that these very large container ships are much closer to full capacity than in the past,” Clive Reed, founder of Reed Marine Maritime Casualty Management Consultancy, told Bloomberg. “There is commercial pressure on the ships to arrive on time and consequently make more voyages.”
The pressure also led to safety concerns. There are fears that captains are more likely to go through heavy weather instead of steering around it, that shortcuts could be taken in loading and other aspects of shipping, and that fatigued crew may make mistakes.
“You cannot see inside the containers,” Arnaldo B. Romero, a captain who sailed from Japan to South America late last year told Bloomberg. “So when the cargo is heavy and the officer in charge of cargo planning puts it high up, during the rolling of the ship, we may not have control anymore.”
Rajesh Unni, founder of Synergy Marine Group, a company that provides services to ship owners, put it more simply: “Traffic on the seas is different from what it was 10 years ago."
This article originally appeared on Weather Channel