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Risk in Context

Global Marine Shipping at Risk Amid Growing Need for Up-to-Date Hydrographic Surveys

Posted by Marcus Baker 23 March 2016

When a mega-ship grounded recently in the Elbe River on its way to Hamburg, it took a dozen tugboats, offloading of fuel, a mini-dredging operation, and a seasonally high tide to free it, according to news reports. Should a vessel of its size ever fully block a shipping lane, the ripple effects on supply chains could be severe.

Such issues are increasingly on risk agendas as commercial vessels of enormous proportions more frequently ply waters around the world. High among the concerns is that bathymetric (water depth) data is either not up to modern standards, inadequate, or non-existent for large tracts of national and international waters.

In fact, some parts of the oceans have never been surveyed at all. Governments need to take note — and action: To support the growth of the global shipping industry, they must invest more in creating and sharing accurate hydrographic information.

Government Action Needed

Ports and governments worldwide are keen to encourage visits from ever-larger vessels, but those ships are put at risk by navigation charts that may show data not measured to modern standards, or worse, where no hydrographic survey of the seabed has been done at all. Where bathymetric data exists, it may be a century old, gathered with old lead lines that literally “plumbed the depths.”

In figures published by the International Hydrographic Organization, less than 50% of the waters around the UK are adequately surveyed. Arctic and Antarctic waters are becoming an increasingly popular destination for cruise operators, yet the majority of those waters have not been hydrographically surveyed at all.

In the US, the figures are more encouraging, with 75% of navigationally significant waters having been surveyed to modern standards, Rear Admiral Tim Lowe RN (the UK’s National Hydrographer) recently told Marsh.

It is essential that governments and port authorities place a higher priority on providing accurate hydrographic information. According to the United Nations Committee for Trade and Development (UNCTAD) 2014 annual report, more than 80% of internationally traded goods (by volume) are transported by sea.

My Marsh colleagues and I urge governments to fulfil their obligations under the Safety of Life at Sea Convention (SOLAS) to help map the world’s sea bed and to make our oceans safer by either performing the hydrographic survey work themselves or helping to finance commercial firms to undertake this vital work. We also urge greater collaboration between countries to take responsibility for mapping international waters beyond their own national limits, where so little is known about the depths of the oceans that our clients have to navigate.

For more information, read Plumbing the Depths: Hydrographic Concerns for Modern-Day Large Vessels.

Related to:  Marine

Marcus Baker

Global Head of Marine & Cargo