Expert Risk Articles

Superstorm ship sinkings

Weather extremes have caused several high-profile shipping incidents over the past year including the sinking of the El Faro, the listing incident of the Alam Manis, and the forced return to port of the Anthem of the Seas cruise ship. Are such events an anomaly? Or will more follow – and threaten global supply chains?

“Super” El Niño: Cause or coincidence?

Weather has always posed a significant threat for mariners but “exceptional” weather events are becoming more commonplace, bringing with them safety risks for shipping and disruption to global supply chains. This year, the effect of a heightened El Niño, dubbed ‘super’ El Niño, is expected to lead to more extreme weather conditions, especially in countries bordering the Pacific Ocean. El Niño is defined by prolonged warming in Pacific Ocean sea surface temperatures when compared with the average value[1].

The results are extremes of weather conditions, such as increased participation and stronger winds. There have been two recorded ‘super’ El Niños to date, in 1982-83 and 1997-98. The United Nations said in January that the strength of the current El Niño has “put our world into uncharted territory”[2], such has been the severity of storms and winds experienced around the world.

For the shipping industry, these weather extremes heighten safety risks at sea and in port. Extreme weather conditions have been put forward as the cause of the sinking of TOTE Maritime’s 1975-built, 600 feu El Faro. When the ship departed Jacksonville on route to San Juan, Puerto Rico, on September 29, the crew were monitoring what was then Tropical Storm Joaquin. Then, on October 1, TOTE lost all communication with the El Faro[3]. On October 5 the US Coast Guard confirmed that the ship had sunk in 15,000 feet of water with no survivors. Hurricanes and bad weather were a contributing factor in at least three of the five largest vessels lost during 2015.


One of the world’s largest cruise ships, the Anthem of the Seas, was forced to return to port after it was struck by 30ft waves and winds of up to 100mph in the Atlantic Ocean in February 2016. More extreme weather conditions are anticipated.

“The fact that superstorms are causing ships to sink is concerning,” says Sven Gerhard, Global Product Leader Hull & Marine Liabilities, AGCS. “We are seeing more and heavier nat cat events.” Heavy weather and adverse swell also led cargo to shift in the 2007-built, 55,652 dwt Alam Manis in July. The ship developed a 20-degree list off the Philippines after its cargo of nickel ore shifted. Twenty of the crew of the bulk carrier were safely transported to shore, with one fatality recorded.

In November two rare cyclones a week apart killed 26 people and left nearly 6,000 families displaced in Yemen[4]. Tropical cyclones are rare over the Arabian Peninsula and to be hit by two back-to-back is an extraordinary event. “This has had a catastrophic impact on Yemen, but importantly the North Arabian Sea has so many shipping transits,” says Captain Andrew Kinsey, Senior Marine Risk Consultant at AGCS. “If we see more of these type of weather phenomena it will definitely impact the supply chain and we may see a return to near-shoring.”