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.
Whose responsibility is it to ensure that there is affordable access to employment?
What responsibilities do employers have in terms of supporting their workforce's commute to work?
There are great examples of efforts from employers to facilitate commutes to work, but the same mobility perks are much harder to offer for small business employers, non-traditional employers, contract workers and the self-employed.
For those groups who don't enjoy employee commute perks, transportation and access to jobs is yet another hurdle, especially during COVID.
In some tech companies, employers are offering stipends for their employees to deck out their remote working areas. Other firms are incentivising a return to work by offering additional mobility benefits that ease the struggle of a commute.
In fields like investment banking, it is not uncommon for employees to receive an allowance for a taxi home after working long hours. Ironically, these individuals could easily afford an Uber ride themselves. For most employees working for an hourly rate the same benefits often do not apply, and many essential workers in the food and healthcare industries fall into this camp.
Through the outbreak of the pandemic, employers have answered these questions, albeit inequitably. Some identify a responsibility to support their workforce commute. Recognizing their responsibility of giving their workforce the opportunity to protect their health and that of their loved ones, others still have helped non-essential employers establish alternatives to office commuting over the last year.
While some firms have attempted returns to the office, the understanding in many workplaces remains that employees are entitled to choose the risks to which they're exposed in order to get to work, even if there might be costs for collective productivity.
COVID has removed employees' needs for self-funded commutes, democratizing access to work. This historic shift triggers a broader conversation point: whose responsibility is it to ensure that there is affordable access to employment, if affordable is defined in terms of dignity, safety, finances and time?
The commute as part of an obstacle to employment
Questions abound surrounding the commute and responsibility: Should the public sector help subsidise commuting solutions for underserved communities, to help combat unemployment? Should employers take the same care of their lower-waged employees as they do of their higher earners? Should contractors guarantee mobility support for the essential workers they provide, so they can continue delivering their services regardless of circumstances? Security guards would be one such example.
The ease or difficulty of a commute impacts worker performance, worker health and the length of stay of employees in the company. Commuting is an unspoken part of the job without any financial, social or environmental recognition. For many there is no financial returns for commutes; it's just the energy time sink you invest in to keep a job.
Environmentally, it's the unacknowledged pollution and traffic sink. But as a society we can choose not to perpetuate this broken reality.
When funding commutes is in the financial interest of the firm
In some industries, it can be relatively easy to quantify the costs of having an employee become unable to perform overtime. Associates in law firms, for example, track billable hours.
Without that allowance for a late-night taxi — i.e. if they just declared they were not comfortable getting back to their neighborhood via public transport late at night and therefore decreased their hours — employee bonuses and overall compensation would be proportionately lower, as would the revenue produced by the firm.
Some associates bill over $1,000 an hour. Some law firms then charge a fee on top for a supervising associate to review and approve the work. The math is simple: a $30 ride and a $50 dinner can yield a huge ROI for the firm.
The same math becomes much more complicated for the janitor who comes in at 10pm so he can clean the office before the next morning without bothering the managing partners or distracting high-paying customers. But isn't this person equally entitled to not jeopardize his safety, "just" so he can keep his job — financial gain for the firm, or otherwise?
COVID-19 has created a crystal clear understanding of the risks everyone is taking each time they step into an indoor space. And yet, in spite of the use of mask wearing to get on with our lives to some degree, the world has largely reached a consensus that COVID-19 was dangerous enough to justify not forcing commutes to the office.
The world now has an enormous learning opportunity. In re-evaluating the commute, we see we might have spent decades missing opportunities for greatly increased ROI for global economic development via corporate reform. We've taken the first steps towards democratizing commutes: let's stay on track.
How many hurdles stand in the way of hyperloops becoming a commercial reality?
- Hyperloops are a new type of transportation technology that involves vacuum tubes and passenger pods traveling at ultra-fast speeds.
- Although no commercial hyperloops exist yet, a handful of companies around the world are building test tracks, some in partnerships with national governments.
- Hyperloops could prove to be a faster and more environmentally sustainable form of transportation than flying and high-speed rail, though many obstacles remain.
Virgin Hyperloop has successfully completed the world's first passenger test of hyperloop technology, a new form of high-speed transportation.
The test was conducted Sunday in a desert outside of Las Vegas, where the company built a 500-meter vacuum tube as a test track. Inside the tube, a pod carrying two passengers used electric propulsion and electromagnetic levitation to whisk above the track, reaching 107 mph in about six seconds before coming to a stop.
Virgin's test was designed to prove the safety of hyperloop technology for humans. The company, founded in 2014, hopes to build long-distance hyperloops that travel up to 600 mph, meaning a trip from New York City to Washington, D.C. would take about 30 minutes.
"With today's successful test, we have shown that this spirit of innovation will in fact change the way people everywhere live, work, and travel in the years to come," said Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, in a statement.
It's a big milestone for the technology, which Elon Musk first proposed in 2012. Still, Virgin and other hyperloop companies have many hurdles to overcome before hyperloops become a viable form of transportation.
In addition to proving hyperloops are safe for humans at faster speeds, two major obstacles include:
- Cost: Building and maintaining miles of hyperloop tubes would be incredibly expensive, with leaked documents from 2016 suggesting that each mile of track could cost between $84 million and $121 million. It's unclear whether hyperloops could sell enough tickets at high enough prices to turn a profit, while competing with airlines and railways.
- Land: Due to the high speeds, hyperloop tracks would need to be constructed in near-straight lines. Turns would have to be wide: A Virgin Hyperloop engineer told the New York Times that a hyperloop pod would need about six miles of track to complete a 90-degree turn at 600 mph. It's unclear how or whether Virgin (or other hyperloop companies) would be able to buy or gain rights for all the necessary land to build the tracks.
Artist rendering of Virgin Hyperloop passenger pod
Hyperloop companies, which would be overseen by the Federal Railroad Administration, would also have to sort out issues related to headway, maintaining a vacuum in the tubes, emergency exits, government regulations, passenger capacity and the simple possibility that people might not want to shoot through a vacuum tube at 600 mph.
(On that note: It's unlikely that hyperloops would reach average speeds of 600 mph because the pods would need to accelerate and decelerate at slower speeds for safety and comfort reasons.)
But hyperloop technology is moving forward. In July, the U.S. government published a policy document intended to serve as a regulatory "roadmap" for hyperloop companies seeking to test their technology in the country. Virgin recently announced plans to build a $500 million "certification center" in West Virginia, where the company will test future versions of its hyperloops, aiming to get government approval.
Virgin plans to build its first operational hyperloop in India, whose government has been in talks with the company since 2017. While still in the planning stages, the company hopes to have a commercial hyperloop up and running in India by around 2030.
Underground tunnel built by the Boring Company
Virgin isn't alone in the hyperloop space. For example, there's Los Angeles-based Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, which is working on test projects in the United Arab Emirates, France, and Germany, where the company aims to move cargo through hyperloops. The company said it hopes to open its first commercial operation by 2022.
Hardt Global Mobility, a Dutch hyperloop startup, hopes to build a 10,000-kilometer network of hyperloops throughout Europe. Meanwhile, Elon Musk's Boring Company is building underground tunnels designed for cars traveling short distances. But the company says its tunnels "are designed and built in preparation for their eventual transition to Hyperloop."Some critics of hyperloop technology say it's a "utopian vision" that's unlikely to pan out, while others note that hyperloops would essentially be maglev trains, but more expensive and faster (because the vacuum tube reduces drag). But if successful, hyperloops could not only decrease travel times, but also become a more sustainable form of transportation, potentially magnitudes more efficient than high-speed rail and flying.
'Kanal Istanbul' would create a second Bosporus – and immortalize its creator.
- The Bosporus is three times busier than the Suez Canal, and getting worse.
- To resolve marine congestion, Turkey wants to build a 'second Bosporus'.
- The controversial project would alter local geography – and may have unintended consequences.
The freighter Ismael Mehieddine sailing through the Bosporus in 2014, with the Hagia Sophia (left) and the Galata Tower (right) in the background. Heavy traffic and dangerous cargo create the permanent threat of serious accidents in the middle of one the biggest cities on earth – as have happened in the past.
Image: Julian Nyča, CC BY-SA 4.0
"It does not befit Turkey to think small or to act small," Recep Teyyip Erdogan said last December, countering critics of his Istanbul Canal project. On this much at least those critics agree with the Turkish president: 'Kanal Istanbul' will have a huge impact on the megacity. For starters, it will unmoor the historical core of Istanbul from Europe, turning it into an island.
Whether as Byzantium or Constantinople in previous ages or as Istanbul today, the city on the Bosporus (1) derives its importance from that narrow waterway. The Bosporus separates Europe from Asia and connects the Mediterranean to the Black Sea. Istanbul is the only city in the world that links two continents and two seas. It doesn't get more strategic than that.
That's reflected by the strait's special status. Signed in 1936, the Montreux Convention gave merchant vessels from any country free passage through the Bosporus. Navy vessels can also pass through, with some very specific restrictions (2). Only in wartime may Turkey pro-actively clamp down on maritime traffic through the strait.
That makes the Bosporus - at a certain point only 2,300 ft (700 m) wide - the world's narrowest international waterway. Over the decades since Montreux was signed, it's also turned into the busiest. In 1934, about 4,500 vessels crossed the strait. By 2017, that number had increased almost twelve-fold, to 53,000. That's more than three times the number of ships that sailed through the Suez Canal that year (17,000), and more than four times the figure for the Panama Canal (12,000).
Plus, about one in five ships passing through the Bosporus each year is a tanker carrying hazardous materials. In 2018, that added up to 150 million tons of dangerous cargo.
Currents and curves
The Bosporus as seen from the International Space Station, showing coastal waters from the Black Sea carried into the Sea of Marmara.
Image: NASA, Public Domain
Considering that average ship size has more than doubled since Montreux, and that the Bosporus is a natural waterway with 13 sharp curves, strong bidirectional currents and heavy traffic, there is always a risk of serious accidents – as shown by past incidents.
- In 1960, a collision of the oil tankers Peter Verovitz (Yugoslavia) and World Harmony (Greece) killed 20 and created a large oil spill.
- In 1966, a collision of two Soviet oil tankers, the Lutsk and the Kransky, led to a huge oil spill and a fire on the Kadiköy Pier, the main ferry pier on the Asiatic side.
- In 1970, the Italian oil tanker Ancona collided with a building on shore, killing five.
- In 1979, an accident with the Romanian oil tanker Independenta killed 51 and its cargo of 95,000 tons of oil caught fire. The blaze burned for a whole month. The wreckage hindered traffic for years afterwards.
- In 2018, the freigther Vitaspirit collided with the historical wooden villa of Hekimbasi Salih Efendi, causing massive damage.
And the international shipping isn't even half the story, for it doesn't include local traffic: almost 2,000 ferry rides carry about 500,000 commuters across the Bosporus every day.
Smaller accidents happen regularly; to prevent the larger ones, the Turkish government has banned the night passage of tankers longer than 200 meters, among other measures. That doesn't improve the waiting times for ships on either side of the strait, which sometimes have to queue for days before they can cross over.
A second Bosporus
Overview of Kanal Istanbul and some of the surrounding projects, including the already inaugurated new airport (northeast) and the yet to be developed city around the canal (center).
Image: Property Turkey
With traffic predicted to hit 86,000 ships by 2070, the evident solution is a new waterway, a second Bosporus: 'Kanal Istanbul'. It must be said that Erdogan's idea is hardly original. The first to float it was Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-22). The idea was subsequently adopted and abandoned by succeeding sultans at the regular rate of once per century: Murad III (16th c.), Mehmed IV (17th c.), Mustafa III (18th c.) and Mahmoud II (19th c.)
As if not to break the chain, four-time Turkish prime minister Bülent Ecevit revived the idea for an electoral campaign in the 1990s. Ideas of such historical persistence have a way of coming back until they are fulfilled (3), and indeed: Ecevit's successor Erdogan, then still prime minister, reanimated the plan in 2011, for yet another electoral campaign.
In fact, the canal was one of three 'crazy projects' – Erdogan's own words – designed to raise Turkey's GDP to $2 trillion by 2023, the 100th anniversary of the Turkish republic. The other two were the world's biggest airport, and a superhighway linking it to the city and beyond. The new Istanbul Airport opened last year. However, work on Kanal Istanbul has hit some delays.
The canal's final route was announced only in 2018. It will run about 19 miles (30 km) west of the Bosporus, from Lake Küçükçekmece in the south, through the districts of Avcilar and Basaksehir inland, with most of the route carving through Arnavutköy in the north. When finished, the canal will be 28 miles (45 km) long, 69 ft (20.75 m) deep and 1,180 ft (360 m) wide at the surface; 900 ft (275 m) at the bottom. It will be able to accommodate ships of up to 1,150 ft (350 m) long and 160 ft (49 m) wide, with a draft of 58 ft (17 m).
The cost of the project, estimated initially to be $8-10 billion, has already been revised upward to $16.5 billion. A project this size creates its own weather, so to speak, even before it's under way. Visions of a new city housing half a million people rising up along the canal have sent local real estate prices soaring. But Kanal Istanbul has also run into some tough headwinds: the project has a vocal and powerful opponent in Ekrem Imamoglu, who was elected mayor of Istanbul in 2019.
But who will pay?
Imamoglu is on record as calling the project a disaster, treason, even "murder" – figuratively, of Istanbul; because the canal threatens between a fifth and a third of the city's fresh water supply (4), places a physical limit on the city's westward expansion, and increases the risk of flooding. In case of a catastrophic earthquake, the canal may make it harder to get help in and evacuees out of the city, which will effectively be an island. Not to mention that building the canal involves the destruction of vast tracts of agriculturally and ecologically valuable land.
The mayor seems to have most of his citizens on side, as a poll earlier this indicated 80 percent of Istanbulites are against the canal, with only 8 percent in favor. For Erdogan, that must sound like Gezi Park all over again. In 2013, plans to develop that Istanbul park, one of the relatively few green spaces left in the city, sparked demonstrations that morphed into a nationwide wave of civil unrest, directed against the policies of Erdogan's government. The Kanal Istanbul project contains much of the same socially combustible material.
But since Turkey is a highly centralised state, there is very little even the mayor of Istanbul can do against a canal that will radically alter the geography of his city. Work on the canal, which was greenlighted at the start of 2020, will involve up to 800 people at any given time, and up to 10,000 people over the project's entire lifetime. Erdogan has pledged use the national budget and if necessary, the national army to finish the canal.
The new canal would have a capacity of about 160 vessels a day, comparable to the Bosporus itself. Interesting for Turkey is that the canal will not be subject to the Montreux Convention, meaning that it will have full control over traffic on the canal – and will also be able to charge a fee. But who will want to pay when free passage via the Bosporus remains an option guaranteed by international treaty? Turkey may bet on shipping companies wanting to minimise delays (5). And if that doesn't work, then perhaps those delays could miraculously start getting longer.
First, however, the canal needs to be built. As of now, no major excavation work seems to have been undertaken yet. And even when the project gets going, economic problems and/or social unrest may still throw a spanner in the works. But if the canal gets dug, then Erdogan will have succeeded where five sultans have not. And his name will be attached to an accomplishment pharaonic in scale, which may remain relevant when much else that animates this century has faded into history.
But perhaps Erdogan's name will also be associated with a less flattering consequence of the mega-canal. Among the many objections to the canal that are summarily brushed aside by the proponents of the project, is the warning by marine scientists that Kanal Istanbul would upset the complex correspondence of water flows between the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea. It could leave the former body of water anoxic – deprived of oxygen. That could mean that large parts of the city will be smelling of hydrogen sulfide – an aroma commonly identified with rotten eggs, and in future perhaps with past presidents.
Strange Maps #1047
Got a strange map? Let me know at email@example.com.
- The literal translation of Bosporus from the ancient Greek is 'cattle strait', or 'oxford'. In Turkish, the preferred term is Istanbul Boğazı, or simply Boğazı, 'the Strait'.
- For some time after WWII, the Soviets tried to pressure Turkey into granting its navy unrestricted access to the Mediterranean. However, the so-called Turkish Straits Crisis backfired on the Soviets: Turkey eventually abandoned its neutrality and joined NATO.
- See for example the idea for the establishment of a brand-new inland capital for Brazil, which predates Brasilia by well over a century – and which led to a map mystery that is explained in #989 and solved in #990.
- In 2019, the city of Istanbul consumed about 2.8 million m3 of fresh water per day. That's roughly an Olympic swimming pool per second.
- For a large merchant vessel, 'waiting mode' can cost up to $120,000 a day.
We will travel again, but it will not be the same.
COVID-19 has upended global travel and brought the world to a standstill.
For the first time in history, close to 90% of the world's population now lives in countries with travel restrictions. Airlines, travel companies and the tourism sector as a whole are among the most affected businesses. An estimated 25 million aviation jobs and 100 million travel and tourism jobs are at risk. Between five and seven years' worth of industry growth will potentially be lost.
Air passenger volume as measured in revenue passenger kilometres (RPKs). Passenger demand has fallen at an unprecedented rate. (Image: IATA)
We will travel again, but it will not be the same. Even if borders reopen, travellers must trust that boarding a plane is safe and that they will be able to enter the destination country. New health safety protocols and systems will need to be in place, and these have yet to be defined. As governments and industry plan for recovery in this new context and adapt to changing traveller behaviour, the use of digital identity and biometrics technologies could restore trust while also ensuring a seamless journey. However, these tools will only be effective if users feel that their data is protected. Privacy, consent and transparent data governance must be at the heart of any technical solution.
Here are two key areas of transformation in which digital technologies will shape the future of travel.
The most immediate and perhaps most visible change will be a shift to touchless travel from airport curbside to hotel check-in. Even with strict cleaning protocols in place, exchanging travel documents and touching surfaces through check-in, security, border control, and boarding still represent a significant risk of infection for both travellers and staff.
Automation across the entire sector will become the new norm. Biometrics are already a widely accepted solution for identity verification, and their use will become more widespread as physical fingerprint and hand scanners are phased out. More touchless options will come into play including contactless fingerprint, as well as iris and face recognition. Moreover, technology for touchless data-entry such as gesture control, touchless document scanning and voice commands are already being tested. Care must be taken to ensure these technologies are inclusive and to eliminate the risk of potential biases.
Digital health passports
From now on, health could be embedded in every aspect of travel. According to a survey by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), measures such as visible sanitizing, screening and masks all increase passengers' feelings of safety when thinking about travelling after COVID-19.
To date, there is no standard or agreement on the acceptable level of risk for reopening borders or allowing individuals to travel. Until a vaccine is developed, the focus is shifting to assessing the risk of individual passengers. With the passenger's consent, travel companies and airlines could use personal data such as their age, underlying health conditions and travel history to compile an individual risk profile.
Efforts to develop health protocols and standards using digital technology for the travel and tourism industry are still in their initial stages. In the meantime, airlines such as Emirates are conducting on-site COVID-19 testing for passengers. European airports have begun drawing up industry guidelines for passenger health screening. While not new, the use of thermal cameras at airports is becoming more widespread. A number of symptom-tracking and contact-tracing apps now exist in many countries. Apple and Google are close to finalizing a contact-tracing software scheme for developers to build compatible apps.
New health-screening and tracking tools offer hope of a return to relaxed and confident travel. However, they have also brought privacy and data issues to the forefront of the discussion. Any solutions need to be transparent and secure if travellers are to embrace them. Data should be shared on an 'authorized to know' and 'need to know' basis, with informed consent and in line with applicable regulations.
The digital traveller
Many organisations are already well advanced in their digital journey. This must be accelerated to enable the new normal, help businesses to adapt to changed consumer behaviour and rebuild trust. Integrated digital identity solutions are key to realising touchless travel. They also allow organizations to draw on multiple data points to efficiently assess a person's risk profile, enabling them to manage risks in real time.
The World Economic Forum's Known Traveller Digital Identity initiative is an example of such an approach. This initiative brings together a global consortium of individuals, governments, authorities and the travel industry to facilitate safe and seamless journeys. Consortium partners can access verifiable claims of a traveller's identity data to improve passenger processing and reduce risk. Travellers can manage their own profile, collect digital 'attestations' of their identity data and decide which information to share.
In a COVID-19 context, a traveller would be able to securely obtain and store trusted, verifiable health credentials such as immunizations or their health status in their digital identity wallets. This would be combined with other trusted, verifiable identity data from public or private entities.
Testing and health screening at airports is difficult to achieve at scale. Under schemes like Known Traveller Digital Identity, travellers would be able to consent to sharing their identity and health data in advance of the journey, allowing border officials to conduct any required risk assessments in advance of the journey while avoiding queuing and bottlenecks at airports.
Collaboration is key
In this time of unprecedented change, governments and industry have a unique opportunity to redefine travel and build a more sustainable, agile, and resilient industry. This will not be possible without collaboration.
In the near term, stakeholders will need to cooperate to accelerate the use of digital technologies. Next, they will need to develop a cohesive policy and legal regime around the deployment of digital technologies that balance the protection of civil liberties and public health. The third challenge is to ensure that different digital identity solutions can operate together. The role of organizations such as the World Health Organization, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) will be critical to align health and aviation priorities, guidelines and policies.
Paper passports are still required as the main form of identity for travellers. In a contactless world, the adoption of standardized digital travel credentials and initiatives like IATA's ONE ID concept, which promote the use of biometrics for a smoother journey, must be accelerated and adapted to this new context.
Ultimately, the pandemic is likely to speed up two trends that have been gathering steam for some time. One is seamless travel, where your face and body are your passport. The other is the idea of a decentralized identity. This means the individual is in possession of and controls their identity attributes, such as their date and place of birth and physical characteristics, but also travel history, health information and other data. Combined, these trends will ensure travel is enjoyable, efficient and safe.