The challenge of a crowded ocean: avoiding icebergs and whales

As the ocean looks set to get busier due to increasing international trade, improving navigation systems is being seen as vital for protecting both human and marine life

More than 90 per cent of global trade today is carried out via ships – a number that equates to an estimated 53,000 merchant ships trading internationally. That number looks set to increase dramatically. A 2019 study, led by researchers at McGill University in Canada, has predicted an increase in marine traffic of anything between 240 and 1,209 per cent by 2050. In preparation for this surge, scientists and engineers around the world are tackling the tricky question of how to navigate the waters more safely.

On the west coast of the US, one such group has a single priority – whales. The region is home to busy international ports but also the fertile feeding grounds of blue, humpback and fin whales. As a result of crossovers such as these, ship strikes are thought to be one of the leading causes of death for whale populations.

Dr Briana Abrahms, a research ecologist at NOAA Fisheries’ Southwest Fisheries Science Center, is developing an app that will allow managers and ship crews to be alerted as to the probable location of blue whales. It is based on the group’s new model which predicts whale movements based on oceanographic conditions. ‘Ocean conditions can change on a daily basis,’ Abrahms explains. ‘We know what conditions the whales like, so every single day we can look at where those conditions are and predict where the whales will go.’ Most of the shipping companies Abrahms has consulted with confirm their routes four days before a voyage, so her team is adapting the model to also predict where whales are likely to be four days in advance.

Of course, knowing where the whales are is hardly relevant if captains ignore the information. Abrahms admits that voluntary slow-down schemes for large ships on the east coast of the US (slower ships being less likely to kill whales) have seen low levels of compliance (45 per cent for the Francisco Bay region and just 23 per cent in the Santa Barbara Channel). Her hope is that more accurate data will encourage owners and managers to respond. ‘Part of the reason we think there’s low compliance is because there’s not a lot of confidence among the shipping industry that if you say “slow down between July and November” that there is actually a whale there. By making it more concrete and saying that our model predicts whales today, we’re hoping that will help.’

Increasing the accuracy of data and inspiring confidence and compliance are also key pursuits for researchers working to protect human life, particularly in the Arctic. Though numbers are still low, increasing numbers of cargo ships are choosing to enter the Arctic’s icy waters as the Northwest Passage, the bane of many famous explorers, becomes increasingly navigable due to global heating melting the ice. While the route is appealing because it offers a shorter journey time compared with the typical path through the Suez Canal or around Africa, most ship navigation systems are not designed to deal with the hazards of the region.

Mechanical engineer, Dr Giles Thomas, is one member of an EU-funded project called Sedna, set up to confront this problem. The team is focusing on five innovations, including improved navigation systems, but also the design of new materials (inspired by the coats of penguins) with which to cover the hulls of vessels and repel ice. ‘It’s a hostile region because you’ve got ice up there and it’s also more remote, so if ships do get into difficulty it’s much harder to come to their rescue,’ says Thomas. ‘And, from an environmental perspective, you want to do your upmost to avoid any oil spillages.’

To minimise the danger, he is working on a new voyage planning tool specifically for Arctic waters. The tool will combine Met Office ice forecasting data with other environmental forecasts such as wind speed, wave height and currents, to plan the best route both for minimising fuel consumption and for safely avoiding ice.

Though Thomas says that it’s not a consideration at this stage, he notes that there’s no reason why other data, such as that regarding the movement of whales and other marine animals couldn’t be added to the tool in the future. ‘Actually it would be interesting if you could pull in information like that,’ he says. ‘You could quite easily input the information into the voyage planning tool, either as an additional layer of information or by actually including it in the requirements to try and avoid those areas.’

See Geographical article . . .