Suez Canal Container Ship Accident Is a Worst-Case Scenario for Global Trade

While the exact number of container ships of this size transiting the canal is unknown, container vessels account for almost a third of all canal traffic. Their depth and girth make for difficult navigation within the canal. When operating within such tight margins, ships of this size have to maintain a certain speed to keep their steering effective.

With the capacity to carry over 150,000 tonnes of cargo, these ships cannot stop suddenly. If something does go wrong, crews have very little time to react before the ship runs aground.

This makes a blockage of this type almost inevitable, especially considering that the length of these ships far exceeds the width of the canal. But what makes this incident particularly disruptive is the location of the grounding. Since the canal was expanded, the Mediterranean end of the Canal now has two channels for ships to take, allowing seamless transiting even if one channel is blocked.

But, in its current location at the Suez end of the Canal, the Ever Given is blocking the only channel for ships to pass through. As ships travel through the 193km of canal in convoys with tightly scheduled slots, vessels leading these groups can block the channel like this, creating a backlog of ships or even collisions. It’s unclear if the goods being delayed are time-sensitive (for example: medicine or food), but understanding what effects these incidents have on trade can help us pre-empt effective solutions.

Could It Have Been Worse?
We’re also interested in what other factors can influence an event like this. One element is the time of year. Traditionally, in the build-up to Christmas, October and November are busy times for maritime trade. A disruption in the global supply chain during this period would have a far greater impact, and could coincide with difficult weather conditions which would exacerbate things, like visibility-reducing fog.

Another element is the unevenness of the canal’s banks. If the incident had occurred only a few kilometres down towards the seaport of Suez where the strait ends, the ship would have run aground on banks composed of rock, not sand. An impact here might have caused serious damage to the hull, making salvage operations harder.

While not identical to our team’s table-top scenario, the latest incident does highlight that as ships get larger and more complicated, their reliance on narrow shipping routes constructed in an earlier age looks increasingly risky. Today’s blockage will have limited long-term implications, but incidents like it could be triggered maliciously, causing targeted or widespread impacts on global and local trade. We need to be more aware of these weaknesses as our world becomes more connected.

Rory Hopcraft is Industrial Researcher, University of Plymouth. Kevin Jones is Executive Dean, Faculty of Science and Engineering, University of Plymouth. Kimberly Tam is Lecturer in Cyber Security, University of Plymouth. This article is published courtesy of The Conversation.