What's to blame for the recent uptick in containership accidents?
- At any given time, 6,000 containerships are moving the vast majority of global trade on the world's oceans.
- The average number of annual containership accidents has been on a downtrend for the past decade, but accidents have become more common since the start of the pandemic.
- One factor behind the recent rise in containership accidents could be rising demand for imported goods from U.S. consumers.
In November 2020, the containership ONE Apus was sailing from China to California when a severe storm struck. The 364-meter ship began rolling heavily. Soon, nearly 1,800 of the ship's containers—some of which were carrying dangerous goods like fireworks and liquid ethanol—came loose. Some crashed onto the deck. Others spilled into the ocean, lost forever.
The ONE Apus incident was one of at least six major containership accidents that occurred since November, which altogether have resulted in the loss of 2,980 containers. That's more than double the annual average number of lost containers from 2008 to 2019, according to a recent report from the World Shipping Council.
What's causing the uptick? It's likely a combination of bad weather and heavily loaded ships, some of which are packed to the brim due to increased U.S. imports since the beginning of the pandemic. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that January brought the largest monthly increase in U.S. imports since 2012.
To be sure, the World Shipping Council notes that containership accidents have been on a downtrend over the past decade, writing "containers lost overboard represent less than one thousandth of 1% of the roughly 226 million containers currently shipped each year."
But that fraction of a percent adds up over time. After all, international containerships move more than 80 percent of global trade, representing a roughly $4 trillion industry. And while accidents are relatively rare, they pose significant threats to crew and the environment, not to mention the economic costs.
In its recent report, the World Shipping Council notes several ways the industry has been working to improve safety standards, including increased inspection programs and updated packing practices.
Still, accidents are bound to happen among the 6,000 containerships that are sailing the world's oceans at any given time. One reason is parametric rolling, a phenomenon only experienced by containerships.
The World Shipping Council
In short, parametric rolling is a sudden side-to-side movement of a large ship caused by a specific alignment of waves, usually during a storm. Parametric rolling can send containers, which are sometimes stacked six stories tall, toppling over each other.
Bigger ships tend to be more at risk.
"The new container ships coming to the market have large bow flare and wide beam to decrease the frictional resistance which is generated when the ship fore end passes through the water, making it streamlined with the hull," wrote Marine Insight.
"As the wave crest travels along the hull, it results in flare immersion in the wave crest and the bow comes down. The stability varies as a result of pitching and rolling of the ship. The combination of buoyancy and wave excitation forces push the ship to the other side."
On a broader scale, the cost of shipping goods by any method—train, truck, air, ocean—is rising as supply chains are becoming congested and demand for imports keeps increasing. For the most part, companies are fronting the bill.
As for U.S. consumers? They might start paying a premium for imported goods, or for goods that feature imported parts.
"Most prices along the supply chain have gone in one direction, and that's up, so it has to appear somewhere," Joanna Konings, a senior economist at ING, told CNN Business.
Digitized logbooks from the 1800s reveal a steep decline in strike rate for whalers.
Until someone works out a way to communicate with them, we can't really know how smart whales are. We do know they have the largest brains of any animals on the planet—of course, big is a thing they do really well altogether—and that their brains have more cortical convolutions than any other creature, including humans. There are indications that they're quite intelligent.
If that's so, however, why did 19th-century whalers in the North Pacific find it so easy to drive them to the edge of extinction? Didn't they see what was happening? New research published by the Royal Society in the U.K. apparently has an answer to that question, and it is "yes." An analysis of newly digitized whalers' log books finds that whalers' ability to harpoon sperm whales dropped precipitously after initial successes.
One possible explanation for the falloff would be that whalers' competence somehow degraded over time, but that doesn't seem especially logical. A more likely interpretation is that whales warned each other and modified their behavior to avoid the ships. If this is so, it suggests several thrilling things about the animals. First, they apparently shared information about the new predators, and second, they developed an effective evasive strategy.
A good look at mariners’ records
Credit: Aris Suwanmalee/Adobe Stock
The paper was written by cetacean experts Hal Whitehead of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia and Luke Rendell of University of St. Andrews in Scotland, along with data scientist Tim. D. Smith. Whitehead and Rendell are co-authors of "The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins."
The researchers were working from the logbooks of American whalers operating between 10° and 50° in the North Pacific Ocean in the 19th century. The daily logs listed a ship's noon position, the number of sperm whales sighted, and how many whales were harpooned ("struck") or processed ("tried"). These records allowed the researchers to identify the date on which first contact with local whales occurred. From there, they were able to calculate the rate at which whales were encountered over the subsequent years.
The researchers found that about 2.4 years after first contact, whalers' strike rate fell by 58 percent.
At first, it seems the whales didn't quite know what to do about the whalers and responded to them similarly to the manner in which they defend themselves against the only predator they'd known up to that point: orcas. They formed defensive circles, their powerful tails pointed out to fend off their attackers. Unfortunately, this provided no defense against harpoons and likely made whaler's jobs easier by gathering groups of whales together where they could be easily killed.
Soon however, the leviathan strategy shifted and whales took to swimming upwind away from whalers' ships, an effective evasive maneuver that kept them ahead of the wind-driven boats. As White tells The Guardian, "This was cultural evolution, much too fast for genetic evolution."
Whale social learning and strategy
Spectrogram of a humpback whale song
Credit: Spyrogumas/Wikimedia Commons
While there remains debate over whether whale communities exhibit characteristics we'd recognize as culture, examples of what seems to be social learning support the idea that it does exist.
Whales are known to communicate with each other over large distances through their haunting—and mysterious to us—songs. These songs provide some hard-to-argue-with evidence for social leaning among whales: They evolve over time, and as they change, those changes are reflected by entire local whale populations. "We don't have to do anything but observe it to know that there's no explanation other than learning from others that can account for this," wrote Whitehead and Rendell to NPR in 2015.
Rendell wrote in Science in 2013 about what seems to be an innovation that was shared among whales: the spread of a particular type of feeding, "lobtailing," that seems to have spread from one humpback whale in 1980 to hundreds in a wider area over the next few decades.
There are also examples of cetaceans clearly using strategy, such as the manner in which orcas hunt together for Weddell seals, described by NOAA scientist Bob Pitman. The seals attempt to evade the orcas by remaining out of the water on ice floes. The orcas synchronize their flukes to create waves that either knock a seal off of a floe, or break the ice apart. Once the seal is in the water, the orcas blow bubbles under the water and apparently using their tails to create enough turbulence that the seal finds it harder to get back on the ice. If it does get out to safety, the orcas do it all over again until, according to Pitman, by about the fourth attempt, they usually have their prey, which they share.
And then there's the whales' evasive tactics for dealing with 19th-century whaling ships.
Back to the present and future
Unfortunately, modern vessels , equipment, and strategies were not as easy to evade, and whale populations were severely depleted in the 20 century. And while that threat is hopefully diminishing, modern fishing tactics such a long-line fishing that hooks whales, the intrusion of human noise in the oceans, plastics and other floating waste, and climate change means that today's seas are just as challenging as ever to whales. Maybe moreso. And nobody can outswim climate change.
"Don't tread on me" is a slogan of the deep sea, too.
- Octopuses are part of multispecific collaborative hunting groups with bottom-feeding fish.
- New research shows octopuses defending their territory by punching fish.
- The team believes this research helps reveal underlying game structures in the deep sea.
The psychologist William James noted that consciousness did not arrive in the universe fully formed. Phenomena like perception and memory are in no way limited to our own form of consciousness, though humans often pretend we're evolution's crowning achievement. In many reckonings, all timelines end with Homo sapiens. Because of this errant belief, we've both exalted our own kind while treating other species as lesser forms on the road to our greatness.
Good science is not so egotistical. We should study other species, as evolutionary threads can be picked from their development to help us weave the story of ourselves. Such endeavors require imagination. Thomas Nagel succinctly posed the hard problem of consciousness in a 1974 essay in which he wondered aloud what it's like to be a bat, setting off decades of debate over the nature of consciousness.
We can, and arguably should, also wonder what it's like to an octopus—if we can.
Australian science philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith argues that intelligence is not a straight line to humans, but rather evolved separately in cephalopods (such as octopuses and cuttlefish) and vertebrates, like us. Humans might ponder the hard problem of consciousness, a question that splits fans of emergent phenomena with dualists, but the bottom dweller known as the octopus has no time for such a debate. Godfrey Smith writes,
"In an octopus, the nervous system as a whole is a more relevant object than the brain: it's not clear where the brain itself begins and ends, and the nervous system runs all through the body. The octopus is suffused with nervousness; the body is not a separate thing that is controlled by the brain or nervous system."
Why some angry octopuses punch fish
An octopus body, Godfrey-Smith argues, in some sense transcends the brain-body divide—neither embodied cognition nor disembodied spirit. Rather, it's "all possibility." Nagel, according to Godfrey-Smith, flubbed the question: the octopus is like something, just nothing like a human, therefore making it difficult to even define.
Alas, we can't help but anthropomorphize. Octopuses might maintain a vastly different intelligence, yet like us, they've had to figure out how to survive in challenging environments. As a new study, published in The Scientific Naturalist, shows, they seem to do that, in part, by punching fish.
Our evolutionary success is due in large part to group fitness: we work together well. On occasion, we collaborate with other species to our mutual benefit, as with hunting dogs. The authors of this study point out that ocean life is filled with multispecific collaborative hunting groups, such as moray eels and groupers. Octopuses get in on this action as well.
"Involving active recruitment and referential gestures, the nature of this relationship is mutually beneficial (byproduct mutualism); that is, both can increase their hunting success rate from the presence of the other species, which likely played an important role in the emergence of complex interactions between groupers and eels."
Image sequence depicting the behavioral action of Octopus cyanea punching (white arrows) a yellow‐saddle goatfish (Parupeneus cyclostomus) partner during interspecific multicollaborative hunting.
Coral reef fishes have made bonds with other ocean life, such as octopuses, who chase prey within rocks and coral crevices while bottom-feeders scour the seafloor. Octopuses are known to tail groupers on hunting expeditions. As with any complex social network, however, life is not all mutual benefit. Tensions rise.
Recording instances in Israel in 2018 and Egypt in 2019, the team observed octopuses punching collaborating fish when things got heated. The goal appears to be moving the fish to a less advantageous location or simply telling them to scram.
"Thus, from the octopus's perspective, punching serves as a partner control mechanism, the nature of which is dependent on the ecological context of the interaction, and on how the octopus benefits from inflicting costs on fish partners."
As Godfrey-Smith writes, octopus arms are partly self and partly non-self—each arm is, in a sense, autonomous. To extend a metaphor, breathing is autonomic yet we can also control it. So too each octopus arm travels on its own but also coordinates with the rest of the body. The central brain, he continues, is like a conductor, with each arm being an improvisational jazz player, paying attention to the structure of the song while meandering off when needed.
We will never know what it's like to be an octopus. Nature has branched intelligence in distinctly different directions. Perhaps we share common ground on the hunt for survival. The team believes that research on punching octopuses helps reveal underlying game structures in the deep sea. And maybe, in some form of interspecies solidarity, we can appreciate their method of defending territory.
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His most recent book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."
By 2050, there may be more plastic than fish in the sea.
- 2050 is predicted to be a bleak milestone for the oceans - but it's not too late to avert disaster.
- Here are 10 actions the world can take to strengthen and preserve our oceans for generations to come.
The year 2050 has been predicted by some to be a bleak year for the ocean. Experts say that by 2050 there may be more plastic than fish in the sea, or perhaps only plastic left. Others say 90% of our coral reefs may be dead, waves of mass marine extinction may be unleashed, and our seas may be left overheated, acidified and lacking oxygen.
It is easy to forget that 2050 is not that far off. Kids we see building sandcastles on the beach today might be gaining traction in their jobs and perhaps starting their own families. The possibility that our children may inherit from us such a broken and diminished ocean is hard to accept.
Such a future, however, is not yet written in stone. A healthier, more whole, and maybe even more profitable future ocean may still be within reach – at least for a little while.
Here are 10 steps that could take us towards a more desirable ocean future:
1. Freeze the warming. Stopping climate change is the hardest but most important step we can take for ocean health. It is good news to have the US back in the Paris Agreement. However, we now need ambitious national commitments to achieve carbon neutrality from all signatories of the Agreement. Recent actions by China, the EU, Japan and the UK are also positive.
2. Walk the talk. We need to make these carbon neutrality commitments real. This will require massive new investment in renewable energy sources, including some more experimental solutions (such as fusion), plus potentially looking with open minds into making older low-carbon energy solutions safer and more viable (such as traditional nuclear). We need to fast-track the development of sustainable next-generation batteries to store this energy intelligently across our grids. This includes major needs for marine energy infrastructure. A future, for example, with electrified ports and low-emission ships would help eliminate the epidemic of deafening ocean noise, address environmental injustices associated with pollution in ports, make oil spills a thing of the past, and significantly reduce global emissions.
A NASA model showing CO2 (the yellow/red swirls) moving across the globe. Image: NASA
3. Blue revolution. The 'green revolution' – a massive ramping up of food production on land in the 1950s – has belatedly reached the sea. Ocean farming, or aquaculture, has increased by more than 1,000% in the ocean recently. The green revolution was sloppily executed, and the first baby steps of the blue revolution have included similar stumbles: chemical pollution, genetic pollution and habitat destruction. But the blue revolution can still clean up its act. Farming in the right places, with the right species, and the right practices could make aquaculture a win for human and environmental health. Ocean food research (into plant-based and cell-based seafood, for example) could also help us meet growing demand for seafood sustainably.We still haven't met the 2020 goal of protecting 10% of the ocean. Can we hit 30% by 2030? Image: Protected Planet
4. 30 x 30. Parks protect some of our most important chunks of nature on land – our Yellowstones and Serengetis. We are vastly behind setting up parks in the sea. We need to follow through on calls to protect 30% of our ocean by 2030. This must be as much about quality as quantity. We need to use intelligent planning algorithms and the intelligence of local and indigenous people to select the very best 30% of the sea to protect. Then the hard work begins. We must develop and deploy new technology to monitor and protect the living assets we put in these ocean savings accounts.
5. The other 70%. An ocean industrial revolution is beginning. Human industry is growing at exponential rates in the sea. Even if we succeed in protecting 30% of the ocean, we must still intelligently zone and manage this accelerated anthropogenic growth in the majority of our unprotected ocean. We largely missed that boat on land. Proactive steps to sustainably onboard an ocean industrial revolution include responsibly managing wild capture fisheries (and making more money in the process), carefully zoning what marine industries go where, eliminating harmful fisheries subsidies, and coming to grips with the fact that some new marine industries, like ocean mining, are simply too dangerous to be allowed into the ocean.
6. Big cracks in the sea. Most of the ocean belongs to us all. This includes the two-thirds of the ocean in the high seas that lies beyond all nations' ocean borders and the marine regions surrounding Antarctica. Protection of biodiversity and equitable sharing of resources has slipped through antiquated governance gaps in these international ocean spaces. But a proposed new UN Treaty for high seas biodiversity – and negotiations to sustainably manage and protect Antarctic waters could help.An algal bloom seen in Lake St. Clair, between Michigan and Ontario, in 2015. Image: NASA
7. End plastic pollution. Plastic pollution is the ocean's new cancer. We need to ban unnecessary plastics and tax other single use plastics, finally making them valuable materials we want to recover and helping to pay for the full cost of their environmental impacts. We need research and tech to prevent plastics from leaking into the sea, to overhaul our recycling systems, and to design economically viable alternatives to plastics. This progress may be accelerated by a proposed international 'Paris Agreement' for plastic pollution.
8. Land. We can help the ocean by first setting a few things right on land. We must massively increase our ambition to save our forests, thus locking up a huge chunk of carbon dioxide. We need to stop wastefully spilling megatons of costly fertilizers into rivers that are creating hundreds of marine dead zones. Precision agriculture that optimizes fertilizer use, coupled with other farming reform practices can help.
9. Wired ocean. We need more ocean data. This includes new tech to detect illegal fishing and connect sustainable fishers to consumers. We need tech to help endangered marine wildlife co-exist with ocean industry and fleets of environmental sensors above and below the water to better study our rapidly changing ocean.
10. Ocean equity. To build a healthy ocean, we must ensure all people have a fair stake in its success and that they are no longer unevenly harmed by ocean health risks. The fate of the ocean will affect people in all communities. Thus, we need people from all communities in ocean science, management, and policy.
Fulfilling the apocalyptic predictions for a 2050 ocean will be all too easy. Altering that ocean future may be one of the hardest things we've ever collectively achieved. But the consequences of inaction will be even harder to shoulder – for us and our ocean.
A new model of plate tectonics offers a chance to look back a billion years with new found accuracy.
- A new way of looking at plate tectonics offers evidence for how the world looked up to a billion years ago.
- By focusing on plate boundaries rather than the continents and land itself, it avoids the pitfalls of other methods.
- The model doesn't account for everything but is still a great step forward in our understanding of continental drift.
Anyone who's ever considered why South America and Africa look like they could fit together knows about plate tectonics, the theory which explains the movement of the continents over long periods of time. Fewer people may fully grasp the importance of the theory to a variety of fields. Plate tectonics also helps explain why similar plants and animals can be found on different continents, and helps us determine why certain elements are more or less abundant in different geological eras.
While the theory has accomplished much, there is room for improvement. In particular, the focus on how continents move runs into limiting difficulties. For example, the seafloor recycles itself every two hundred million years, making it challenging to learn about events before that date if you're just looking at how certain parts of the crust move.
However, a new approach devised by an international team of researchers provides a new way of looking at plate tectonics, which may allow us to look as far back as a billion years. Their work also includes an animation showing that billion years of continental drift in 40 seconds.
So what does this new approach provide us?
Instead of looking at continents themselves, this approach focuses on how the boundaries between plates move over time. This avoids the limitations of other methods, as the records of where plate boundaries were located are quite enduring.
Louis Moresi, a geologist at the Australian National University who was not involved with this study, explained the concept, which he called "astonishing" to Cosmos Magazine:
"The plates are continually shoving the continents around and crashing them into each other. That means the geological record is full of evidence of old plate boundaries and the past actions of plates. We have billions of years of the continental record – for example, old mountain belts leave traces in the rock and sedimentary record even after being eroded – so we have evidence for plates from a billion years ago even though they are long gone into the mantle."
Understanding where the plates were at what times can shed light on the long distant past and explain why the world is the way it is today.
For example, the Snowball Earth hypothesis, the proposal that most of the Earth's surface was frozen over at one or a few points, is relatively dependent on where the continents were at various times. If the continents were not in the correct locations, the possibility of the Snowball occurrence lowers considerably. This new technique allows scientists to estimate where continents were at those times with more confidence than before.
This model may also be of use in figuring out how and when oxygen became such an important part of the atmosphere, which in turn made life like us possible.
This isn't the end-all solution to everything though, as the authors admit in their study, it doesn't consider things like "true polar wander," in which the Earth's rotation and how its magnetic field is situated shifts. Given how vital evidence of Earth's magnetic field and its changes are in geology, there is an entire field of study called Paleomagnetism; the next improvement on existing theory will have to account for it. Despite this issue, the focus on plate boundaries is a huge step forward.
Here's the animation showing how the plates have moved over the last billion years: