Introduction to shipping containers lost at sea
Every year, hundreds of thousands of shipping containers are lost at sea. While many of them wash up on beaches, some can float for years.
Then, there are the instances when they wash ashore in remote areas such as Hawai’i or Alaska.
While the accidents that lead to these discarded cargo containers may be unavoidable, the danger they pose is often overlooked. Here’s what you should know about these shipping containers and their fate.
Hundreds of thousands of shipping containers are lost at sea every year
The loss of shipping containers poses a huge environmental and safety risk. According to a report by the World Shipping Council, on average, 779 containers are lost at sea every year.
In addition to that, a novel coronavirus has had a huge effect on human life, sending containers overboard. The report also shows that this number is increasing.
In the last two years, there have been twice as many lost containers as the average annual rate.
Despite efforts to increase safety awareness, many shippers fail to recognize the potential impact of shipping containers on the environment. Even if a container is not lost, its contents can be harmful to wildlife or the ocean.
Shipping containers can crush aquatic habitats, introduce new features to seabeds, and even spread invasive species. Containers can also spill hazardous cargo into the ocean, and this can be a huge problem.
In the case of Maersk Shanghai, for example, one of its containers spilled six thousand pounds of sulfuric acid into the ocean, contaminating a vast area of the world.
Various causes contribute to these losses. Several factors, such as poor weather and poor container design, can result in container falloff. The report of the World Shipping Council, International Chamber of Shipping, and Baltic and International Maritime Council suggests that there may be a variety of causes.
However, most container losses are caused by human error or improper stowage planning. As a result, the industry must work to improve safety by adopting more advanced technologies that prevent container falloff.
Although the numbers of containers lost at sea are staggering, it is important to remember that most of these vessels are not watertight and can easily sink to the bottom of the sea.
As a result, there are no laws or regulations to prevent the loss of these containers. However, despite the large number of shipping containers that end up on the ocean floor, many of them are still on the surface, where they remain for days or even weeks.
They can float for years in the ocean
During the transport of dangerous goods, shipping containers cannot be completely watertight. As a result, a container may float for days or weeks, but it will eventually sink.
In some cases, shipping containers remain floating for years. They may even float like a growler. After this time, they will become damaged by waves and the increased pressure of the water.
Estimates indicate that a shipping container may float for over three months, so if you’re thinking of bringing home a box for yourself, think carefully about whether this is an ideal option.
If a shipping container floats for many years in the ocean, there’s no way to know if its contents will ever be recovered. But there are times when the container’s contents are beneficial.
A 1992 incident in the Pacific Ocean, for example, resulted in the loss of 30,000 rubber bath toys. Those toys eventually came ashore in Europe, America, and South America. The ocean’s eddies creatures will adapt to these changes and survive.
A 2004 storm in Monterey Bay led to the discovery of 15 shipping containers that were lost at sea. These containers were discovered on the ocean floor about four thousand feet deep.
Although they were not found to be damaged, the containers had been attracting marine life.
Neptunea, a large sea snail, has been observed living inside the container. Researchers are still not sure how long the container has been drifting in the ocean, but it does seem to be a good sign for marine life.
While this may sound like a good thing, it can be a very risky proposition. Approximately 2,000 containers are reported to be discarded at sea every year. Some are in the oceans fronting Texas, North and South Carolina, and Virginia.
Some of them float near the surface of the ocean, causing a major risk to small ocean-going vessels. Those that float on the surface will have to be salvaged, and a few may even sink.
They can wash ashore in Alaska, Hawai’i, or other locations
Unknown to most people, shipping containers can wash ashore in Alaska, Hawai’i, and other locations. Scientists have tracked the debris from several container spills and gathered data to determine the distance that the items traveled.
They’ve even found dozens of computer monitors and rubber bath toys. While there’s no formal reporting process for high-seas shipping container spills to the U.S. government, scientists occasionally perform informal modeling to determine how far the containers travel.
No one knows for sure where these containers are now, but there are several theories.
In the 1980s, a container carrying plastic telephones in the shape of Garfield spilled on a ship. Orange plastic and cables washed ashore.
In 2019, a mangled container containing plastic phones was found wedged deep inside a sea cave in France. This particular container was submerged for much of the year.
The environmental impact of shipping containers is profound. While they’re generally invisible to the public, they can have harmful effects on marine wildlife and the health of the ocean.
Not only can these containers damage marine life, but they can also introduce dangerous cargo into the water.
In one case, Maersk Shanghai lost a container containing 6,000 pounds of sulfuric acid, which washed ashore in Hawaii.
Although the number of shipping containers is relatively small, the ramifications are significant for marine life and local coastal communities.
Although there should be better safety regulations for shipping containers, the legacy of broken ones is costly and confusing.
The lack of clear regulations in some areas can make the salvage process even more difficult. The Hanjin Seattle incident has demonstrated the importance of international treaties.
They pose a major safety and environmental threat
Currently, around 12,000 shipping containers are floating at sea, which poses a major safety and environmental threat. These large objects pose an enormous risk to smaller vessels, as they may contain hazardous cargo.
A marine biologist estimates that the number of containers in the seas is approximately 12,000, and they have the potential to pose serious safety and environmental risks.
In addition, lost containers can also damage the environment.
Container loss can result from a variety of causes, including accidents, bad weather, significant wave troughs, and human error.
However, IMO inspectors will pay particular attention to issues surrounding container loading and fraud.
Additionally, the increased size of vessels and their increased weight can make containers more susceptible to damage, and this can lead to a loss. This is why shipping container losses must be addressed as soon as possible.
In November, a cargo ship en route from China to Los Angeles suffered a catastrophic accident that resulted in the loss of approximately 1,800 containers.
The ONE Apus cargo ship sank near the coast of Hawai’i, and nearly 1,800 containers were lost. Some were hazardous and a cargo ship operator was fined. This incident has led to a series of other accidents.
Maritime officials are investigating the loss of thousands of shipping containers, but the U.S. Coast Guard has limited resources to investigate such incidents.
For example, the Coast Guard issued a notice to mariners a few weeks ago, but it has not received sufficient funding to investigate every single container spill. The Coast Guard assumed that the containers had sunk or ruptured and had to be rescued.
They are not watertight
You may be surprised to learn that most shipping containers are not watertight. While their doors may be watertight, the floors are not.
Whether you’re transporting products on a train or ship, shipping containers have to withstand the elements. But the two terms mean completely different things.
Here are some common misconceptions about shipping containers and why they may not be watertight. You might be surprised to learn that the doors of shipping containers do not open automatically when the weather changes.
A 20′ box weighs approximately eight thousand pounds. However, if you pack it with 30 tons of cargo, it will eventually start to sag. This happens gradually and can take many hours or days.
If the container is not watertight, it may float for months or even years. In that case, it would float, but it would eventually sink.
The time it takes a container to sink depends on the type of cargo it contains, the container’s permeability, and the degree of structural damage. Some containers sink immediately, while others can survive as long as fifteen months.
In a recent case of shipping containers lost at sea, the US Coast Guard had to use a satellite to track their movement and found three containers that were not watertight.
Despite this, they were identified as dangerous goods and the Coast Guard sent an environmental unit to the scene to help investigate the incident.
But the case is far from over. While the ship was carrying nearly two thousand containers, close to half were on the upper deck of the ship.
Thousands of shipping containers lost at sea do not have water-tight seals. Some containers may last longer on the surface of the ocean, but most of them will sink within fifteen months, creating a serious environmental hazard.
They may also contain dangerous goods, which are defined by the International Maritime Dangerous Goods Code. And this makes them prone to mishaps, so they should be watertight at all times.