COLUMN | Will harbour towage become a victim of rapid climate change? [Tug Times]

Photo: Flickr / Jevgenijs Slihto
Photo: Flickr / Jevgenijs Slihto

An interesting article caught my eye recently, because it claimed typhoons and other adverse weather conditions are wreaking havoc on the schedules of container shipping lines and creating “major disruption” for the shipping industry. According to the article, this resulted in record low levels of schedule reliability in 2018.

Jeremy Nixon is CEO of Ocean Network Express (ONE) so his comments should not be ignored, and the disruptions he mentions will have a direct impact on harbour towage operations, particularly in Asia. He explained that global warming has triggered a remarkable increase in adverse weather across major shipping lanes since 2016, and backed up his assertion by pointing out that there were only nine major typhoons in 2016, followed by 13 in 2017 and 17 in 2018. These typhoons, of course, tend to affect major ports in China, South Korea and Japan. Shanghai was closed for eight days in August 2018, and there were 28 days of terminal closures during the four months at the height of the typhoon season.

Because these terminals are all working at high capacity, it is more difficult for them to recover and deal with the backlogs. Mr. Nixon said his group plans to adjust schedules so that ships will not call at too many ports where delays might be expected on a single voyage. Thus it might be possible that a ship which calls at Shanghai might not be scheduled to visit Ningbo on the same voyage, and vice versa. Careful scheduling will reduce the impact of the increasing number of storms.

This is not good news for the local tug operators. With ports closed during typhoons, business will inevitably suffer.

But bad weather may affect operations around the world – Mr. Nixon also mentioned increasingly severe storms in the Bay of Biscay and disruptions to rail services in North America caused by frequent flooding. Sadly, space considerations mean I will have to confine my remarks to the situation in Asia. So what is the situation?

First of all, it seems rather strange to talk about climate change based upon observations of only the past three years, so I took a look at the historical data and discovered there are, on average, 16 severe typhoons each year. On that basis, the 17 storms in 2018 do not seem particularly worrying. What’s more the highest number of storms was 26 in 1964, and the lowest was five in 1999, so on that basis and taking things out of context you could argue that the number is dropping rapidly.

Another interesting measure of the severity of storms is the number of recorded deaths which are blamed on them. The years in my lifetime with the most fatalities appear to be 1959, 1964, 1991 and 2013 so again you could argue that the gap between major storms appears to be increasing.

I make neither of those arguments, but they serve to demonstrate how careful we have to be when interpreting the evidence. For a more informed perspective, I turned to research conducted by the Asia-Pacific Climate Impact Centre, which studies these things from a scientific angle. Their conclusion is that, in future as a result of climate change, China is likely to experience fewer typhoons but they might be more intense than in the past. Academics studying the records of the Joint Typhoon Warning Centre and the Japan Meteorology Agency since 1984 have reached exactly the same conclusion.

So I doubt whether Mr. Nixon is correct in his analysis, and I wonder why he bothered? Is he gamely trying to justify the poor timekeeping of his fleet, or does he really think that studying random numbers from a period of only three years will give him valuable insights into future weather patterns? Perhaps in these days of fake news he assumed most people would believe him and nobody would check and, if so, he was probably correct.

Whatever his reasons, he would be better off considering how he is going to reduce the number of containers lost overboard as the storms increase in intensity. Doing something about inaccurate cargo declarations might be a more productive use of his time, as might a study into whether containers (and container lashings) are strong enough to withstand the weight of ever-higher container stacks on the large vessels which tend to be frequent visitors to the typhoon-affected regions of the planet.

And what about the effect on harbour towage operations? If Mr. Nixon is wrong, then we probably have very little to worry about. Ships will still visit our ports, and the growing ports will probably continue to grow while the shrinking ports will continue to shrink. We might be better off considering whether there is adequate shelter for our tugs when the storms score a direct hit on the port, and whether we need to increase bollard pull to cope with large vessels in worsening weather conditions. But these are the things which professionals do as a matter of course, and as long as there are still towage professionals then I will not lose any sleep worrying about the consequences of the occasional storm.

Unfortunately, it seems to me the supply of professionals is drying up. People are spending less time working in the maritime industries, and there are fewer marine professionals rising to senior management level. As one reporter wrote in my local newspaper today, “The world of management is populated by finance and accounting types who know the price of everything and the value of nothing”.

He was writing about railways, but his comments could apply to almost any industry. As I write this I am looking at a photograph of a new multipurpose tug – a beautiful, powerful beast, but sadly lacking any tyre fenders or, so far as I can tell, a rescue boat. Pity the poor captain who is told to put her alongside a casualty in the next typhoon – yet another victim of the people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Alan Loynd

Alan Loynd is a master mariner with extensive seagoing and shore experience, especially in the areas of salvage and towage. He is the former General Manager of the renowned Hong Kong Salvage and Towage company. He now runs his own marine consultancy and was chairman of the International Tugmasters Association.