If the future belongs to the fast and efficient, shipping is in trouble. As the recent blockage of the Suez Canal and subsequent traffic jam showed, the industry still relies on routes and practices that leave it vulnerable to 20th-century-style crises. Yet 90% of globally traded goods continue to be carried over the waves, so this seasickness directly affects us all. Today’s Daily Dose sails those choppy waters to introduce you to the ideas and innovations reshaping shipping, the threats ahead and new sea routes that will hopefully reset the map of maritime trade.
Shabtai Gold, Reporter
the next ships
Keeping It Shipshape
When the Ever Given cargo ship got stuck in the Suez Canal in March, it led to a pileup of more than 150 vessels and trade disruption that echoed around the world. Finally dislodged after six days, the ship exposed a “big” problem, says Capt. Morgan McManus, master of the T/S Empire State VI training ship at SUNY Maritime College. “Maybe the ships are too big,” McManus tells OZY. “Too many eggs are just in one basket.” Indeed, when a ship the length of a skyscraper is stalled, it leaves thousands of businesses dependent on its 20,000 containers in a lurch. Which is why risk analysts and salvage companies are increasingly warning about the risks of giant container ships. But will the companies behind these mammoth machines give up on the economic logic of stuffing as much as possible onto one ship?
With demand for freight only rising amid globalization and interconnected supply chains, maritime trade is expected to skyrocket 300% by 2050. Shipping represents 2.6% of total greenhouse gas emissions. But companies and countries are investing in environmentally friendly boats. Singapore received its first hybrid-electric pilot boat this year, complete with solar panels on the roof. The firm Sailcargo is building the world’s largest zero-emissions ship in Costa Rica, with a wooden hull. And Maersk, the shipping giant, has vowed to get the world’s first carbon-neutral liner vessel operational by 2023. The company’s goal is that by 2050, all shipping will be net-zero CO2 emissions.
On Their Own
Ships without emissions would be great. But will future maritime vessels also sail without seamen and seawomen? Already, ships rely heavily on automated systems. Thibaut Eude, the founding executive director of Nostos Systems, a France-based shipping consulting firm, doesn’t think humans will truly become superfluous. “I do not believe that fully autonomous ships will ever be at sea,” he tells OZY. One of the reasons is the vulnerability of autonomous technology to cyberattacks. But Eude does think artificial intelligence will streamline shipping, augmenting the capacities of crews and reducing the number of people needed aboard a ship. Indeed, from China to Norway, countries are developing autonomous ships as the future of commercial maritime trade. We only hope this doesn’t kill the tradition of sea shanties that we’ve all come to love.
While we will still need people at sea, they will have a lot more robot friends out on the water. Among other uses, robots can lift heavy objects, speed up handling and take on lots of other tasks, such as painting. Who doesn’t want an underwater drone cleaning their boat, like a Roomba? We are also likely to see hybrids developed as an intermediate technology. Another change will be to the materials used. Ships of steel will be no more as an era comes to a close, just as the age of the wooden boat ended. New composite materials will last longer and are better for the environment.
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The 2013 Tom Hanks film Captain Phillips told the harrowing tale of the hijacking of the Maersk Alabama off the coast of Somalia. The good news is that coordinated anti-piracy missions by Western powers and other countries have helped to dramatically contain that threat, to the point that pirate attacks in 2019 were the fewest since 1994. The bad news? The pandemic has sparked a surge in piracy, with distracted countries focusing their resources on the public health crisis and ports turning away ships, leaving vessels out at sea for longer periods — making them ripe pickings for pirates.
Up to a third of all global trade passes through the South China Sea. And the Strait of Malacca between Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula is its nerve center. That’s why China’s increasingly aggressive claims over the South China Sea — where it is challenging Japan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Brunei and other nations — are worrying the rest of the world. It doesn’t help that recent years have seen a sharp uptick in piracy in the Strait of Malacca. Singapore, however, remains unbowed. It recently announced a $15 billion plan to expand its pivotal role in global trade, with a focus on technology. The city-state hopes to be the “top maritime startup hub in the world.”
3. Middle East Mess
If pirates don’t keep you up at night, maybe a war involving America, Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia at a major global node will get your attention. As OZY recently reported, the Suez Canal is only the fourth most important channel for oil trade. Recently, tensions between Israel and Iran in the Mediterranean and Red seas have returned a focus to other routes in the Middle East, such as the Strait of Hormuz. The strategic point between Iran, the United Arab Emirates and Oman is a major passageway for global energy supplies. Indeed, part of the reason for the American military’s presence in the Middle East is to ensure the free flow of oil and gas and keep costs low. In 2019, attacks on tankers in Hormuz caused energy prices to jump sharply.
4. Turn Down the Volume
The oceans are getting much louder, with noise levels doubling every 10 years, causing a serious threat to marine life. It’s not just offshore drilling that is causing a racket for every type of creature, from whales to octopuses and planktons. Shipping is another significant source, damaging everything from hearing to brain functions. It’s literally stressing out marine life and even messing with their sex lives. After the Sept. 11 attacks, when life on the U.S. East Coast came to a temporary halt, there was a brief respite for marine life in the Atlantic. There was more relief during the first weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic. One hope is that those new composite materials that can be used to build ships will also cut down on the noise.
One of the great bits about visiting Istanbul is having a meal at a seaside restaurant, soaking up the breeze from the Bosporus as you observe dolphins, military vessels and freight carriers heading up to the Black Sea. But Turkey’s autocratic president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan now wants to spend $15 billion to build a new channel parallel to the Bosporus, ostensibly so that Turkey can raise more toll revenue. The Istanbul Canal, which would be roughly the size of the Suez Canal, could be an environmental nightmare, threatening water supplies, marine life, marshes and forests. Indeed, Erdoğan himself called it a “crazy project” when he first proposed the idea in 2011. Now he’s wedded to it. “Erdoğan thinks that if he builds it, no one can ever tear it down,” Ryan Gingeras, a Turkey expert at the Naval Postgraduate School, tells OZY.
Revenue from the Panama Canal amounts to more than $2.5 billion annually, a figure that keeps growing, making the waterway a subject of envy. Which is why neighboring Nicaragua decided in 2015 to partner with a Chinese billionaire to create a rival canal for a whopping $50 billion. Skeptics raised doubts the moment the plan was announced and they were right. The 172-mile sea bridge remains in limbo, not least because the Chinese investor, Wang Jing, has lost some 85 percent of his wealth. The U.S. government was also suspicious that the project was becoming a money-laundering scheme. Dashing Nicaragua’s dreams further, China has invested in upgrading the infrastructure of an expanded Panama Canal, suggesting that it’s betting on the older route.
For all the crackdown on free speech at home, Russia diplomats and trolls are pretty spicy online. When the Suez Canal was blocked, social media–savvy accounts kicked into high gear, tweeting memes and GIFs, with one goal in mind: arguing for a Northern Sea Route, cutting through the Arctic, connecting Asia and Europe at a far shorter distance than is possible at present. Such a route would have more than strategic consequences — it could accelerate climate change, the phenomenon behind the melting Arctic ice that’s enabling Russia’s dreams in the first place.
There have been rumors and reports that Russia and Iran were going to build a massive waterway from the Caspian Sea to the Persian Gulf. This is a centuries-old idea, and maybe not a very good one. The 2016 discussions, trumpeted by Russian state media and then quietly dropped, seem to have gone nowhere. Which might have been for the best. But then came the Ever Given and the Suez debacle and, once again, Moscow and Tehran brought the idea back from the dead. The International North-South Transport Corridor would be hundreds of miles long and link to a wider 4,400-mile ship, rail and road network, connecting the Indian Ocean to northern Europe.
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Long before communism or Osama bin Laden, pirates forced a very young United States to dip its toes into wars across the oceans. While the Maersk Alabama was the first such hijacking for the U.S. since the 1800s, it used to be far more common. So common that the government decided to launch its first foreign war, known as the First Barbary War of 1801-1805. This was a significant decision for the young republic, which had hoped to avoid entanglements beyond North America. President Thomas Jefferson’s goal during the war was pretty straightforward: to stop North African pirates from kidnapping American crews and end what was effectively a kidnapping and ransom scheme. The war was a decisive victory and also helped birth the opening line of the U.S. Marines’ Hymn: “From the Halls of Montezuma/ To the shores of Tripoli,” which refers to the city that is today the capital of Libya.
The port city on the tip of Yemen was once a global shipping hub and was said to have been rivaled only by New York. However, it was one of the many casualties of the 1967 Arab-Israeli Six-Day War. Had Egypt’s strongman Gamal Abdel Nasser closed the Suez Canal for only a brief period, Aden might have recovered. But the canal was shut until 1975. In the meantime, competitors, including Dubai, rose up and replaced Aden as the key link. The city has also fallen victim to Yemen’s wars and is now just a shadow of its former self.
It’s a battle for survival. The opponent: nature. The Strait of Magellan might possibly be the most dangerous sea route, but it was once the only way to get from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. The Panama Canal helped put an end to a different nightmare. Seafarers no longer had to face the treacherous waters of Cape Horn, by southern Chile. The Panama Canal now handles some 5% of world trade.
In 1640 the European wars fully came to Asia. The port of Malacca, located in today’s Malaysia, had been conquered by the Portuguese in the early 16th century. But the Portuguese effectively ran the place into the ground. The Dutch, then a rising global power, sensed an opportunity, and in a war that stretched from the late summer into January 1641, they seized the land, in cooperation with local Malay forces. They ruled for centuries, with the port acting as a vital hub for the Dutch East India Company. The battle also marked the end of the Portuguese’s heavy influence in the region.
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