Will it be an El Niño or La Niña winter season? Or will it be somewhere in between? Answers to these questions are vital for shipping companies when they plan routes and schedules for an upcoming season.
However, while shippers were once happy to leave answers to these questions to weather experts, today many have an active interest in these weather phenomena and how they impact their business.
Kyle Blount has noticed this trend in the seven years he’s worked as a meteorologist and ship router at StormGeo. In fact, it’s now part of his current job as Customer Success Supervisor in StormGeo Shipping, to make presentations to clients on the summer or winter weather outlook. He also outlines reasons for changes to these clients’ routes based on these outlooks.
His latest presentation is about major changes in the overall weather pattern from winter 2019/2020 to 2020/2021. While winter 2019/2020 was characterized by the El Niño phenomenon (the unusual warming of the central and eastern Tropical Pacific Ocean), this winter will see the pendulum swing back to La Niña, or the unusual cooling of the same ocean.
This means big changes for the North Pacific gale track and the seasonal Asian monsoon. In making his presentation to a major shipping company, Blount outlined the effects of these changes on factors such as wind direction and frequency. He also highlighted regions of concern along the routes of this company, as well as alternative routing strategies.
StormGeo presents seasonal outlooks twice a year to clients on request. These presentations are also recorded and available to other companies. In addition, StormGeo is happy to answer questions on these presentations to anyone who is interested. In the spring clients are invited to attend a webinar on the outlook for the upcoming summer tropical storm season.
Blount, who has been routing ships based on weather conditions for 11 years, says it’s become easier over the years due to the groundwork laid by previous meteorologists and route analysts.
“Routing strategies were drawn long ago, after years of people looking at weather patterns. But now we have a much more detailed process, where we use statistical models to look at generic ships moving across different oceans during different times of year.
“We can use over 30 years of data to determine the best routing strategy and see how the outlook for different seasonal factors impacts that routing strategy. While in the past, a team of meteorologists used to work with naval architects, one person can now use the framework they built and create an outlook for a season in a day or two.”
Blount’s interest in weather outlooks goes all the way back to his college senior thesis, which dealt with how these sub-seasonal outlooks can be used for longer-term weather forecasting. Not surprisingly, he finds it “very satisfying” to share information with clients and see their increased interest and knowledge.
“More and more companies want this sort of outlook. When I started at StormGeo, it was a case of ‘Here’s our ship, get it from A to B’, whereas each year we now see more clients looking into outlooks and understanding a lot better how weather impacts their overall business, not just a route-to-route situation.”
The availability of weather data is one reason why businesses are now more aware of the impact of weather. Wider media coverage of what can go wrong when weather is ignored is another.
”There have been a few instances this year of massive container losses possibly because ships were in the wrong place at the wrong time. When big losses like that happen, everyone increases their focus on the weather and what can be done to avoid such losses in their own operations,” says Blount.
With StormGeo routing around 65 000 voyages annually to keep ships safe, efficient and environmentally aligned, routers undergo a thorough training process.
“As a new router, you will spend a lot of time learning about seasonal trends and weather situations. It will be almost a year before you can send your first message and that will be the hundredth time you’ve looked at that situation under the guidance of a more experienced person. That really detailed training allows you to think a lot more about the weather situation rather than just following what the computer comes up with.”
“We also put a lot of thought and development into naval architecture and sea keeping. We work on merging these fields with the weather side, so we’ll be constantly updating the expected speed loss of our clients’ vessels based on the weather,” says Blount.
If clients use StormGeo to route their vessels for more than one sea passage, outlooks become more specific in that each ship in the system acquires its own algorithm to determine how it will perform in certain weather. In this way, routers learn on a ship-by-ship basis how engines will perform in certain weather conditions.
The two most impactful seasons for StormGeo clients are the tropical storm season and the Northern Hemisphere winter. If clients are concerned about the Southern Hemisphere, StormGeo can also compile Southern Hemisphere outlooks.
“If clients are aware of what to expect during the peak busy weather seasons, when there can be big differences, they will know that maybe more of their ships have to sail on longer routes that year. Or there may be delays due to the weather. They’ll be thinking about this before their vessels are underway, build extra leeway into their schedules and thus save themselves potential losses.”
The latest outlook shows a certain area of the Pacific will be subject to many storms this winter, so identifying the safest and most optimal route makes good business and environmental sense.
Although meteorologists are gaining a better grasp of the change from El Niño to La Niña, it’s still not fully understood. Sometimes the world can be in either one for a couple of years and sometimes it changes quickly.
“Because it changed this year for the winter, that doesn’t mean it’s going to go back next year. These phenomena are not 100% predictable. It could stay La Niña or it could bounce around somewhere in the middle. The present outlook has it going back toward the middle now, towards El Niño, but some of the forecast models have it staying La Niña for a longer time.“
“Because of the huge variants that are possible, it’s important for clients to take note of seasonal outlooks. Looking at it from a three to six-month timescale is a lot more certain than looking at it beyond six months. But when you are looking at an individual voyage, that can be a matter of days. We are very confident up to three days and after that we continually update our clients’ vessels, instead of giving an initial forecast and then just sending them on their way.”