Meteorology, tides and a large ship stuck in the Suez Canal

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Like the rest of the world, I am attentive to the large container ship stuck in the Suez Canal. It’s a fascinating story at the intersection of our engineering society and nature. However, it is also more than that. Headley White, a professor at Bethune-Cookman University, told me, “The Suez Canal situation shows how fragile the global supply chain is …” A significant portion of oil, natural gas, cereals and consumer products pass through the Canal and now there is a backlog with estimated costs of $ 9.6 billion per day. As a scientist with an eye on Earth system science, it is interesting to see the different roles that atmospheric and marine sciences play in this ordeal.

According to published reports, a strong sandstorm caused by winds of over 40 mph is primarily responsible for how the enormous 400 meters Never given turned sideways and stuck in one of the most vital passages on the planet. The sandstorm happened around March 23, 2021. I decided to see if I could find it in order to pull one of my favorite resources, NASA Worldview. I tinkered with a few settings and made a few adjustments to produce the image above for March 24th. Dust is clearly visible in the Red Sea and Suez Canal region from satellite imagery.

According to NASA Earth website visible, “Dust storms are common in this region due to the proximity to a number of deserts.” According to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) website, they are particularly common in the spring, “when southerly winds associated with low pressure systems moving across the Mediterranean Sea raise large amounts of dust and sand”.

Interestingly, dust storms and winds are not the only geoscience element in the “stranded ship” saga. In the last days, engineers hoped for tidal activity would lift enough water to help dislodge the vessel. NOAA’s National Ocean Service website states that “tides are caused by gravitational forces exerted on the earth by the moon and, to a lesser extent, the sun.” The culmination of the ebb and flow wave process is high tide. However, initial reports are that this weekend’s efforts to take advantage of the tides were unsuccessful. Suez Canal tide charts can be found here.


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