Weather can be challenging to predict, especially on waterways, but good forecasting can help ships and their crews navigate and make decisions that reduce risks. Bad weather can cause vessels to capsize, run aground, or collide with other ships or objects. Maritime weather forecasting is extremely important in making maritime jobs safer.
Weather at Sea
Weather at sea is not the same as weather over land. The main driving forces are winds, including the trade winds, which blow to the west in the tropical oceans, and the westerlies, which blow to the east in the mid-latitude regions.
Get Matched with a Leading Maritime Attorney in Your Area
- Find the leading maritime lawyers in your area
- Discover how to get compensation as fast as possible
- Learn your legal rights as an injured maritime worker
Winds create surface ocean currents by dragging across the water. In the northern hemisphere, these currents move in clockwise rotations, while in the southern hemisphere, they move in counterclockwise rotations.
Smaller currents also move along the edges of the major currents, called gyres. The smaller boundary currents are numerous and include the Gulf Stream, which moves from the Gulf of Mexico along the eastern coast of the U.S. and Canada and across the ocean to the British Isles.
These currents generate and influence much of the maritime weather that we see across the world’s oceans.
Weather generates waves and swells, which have a significant impact on vessels at sea. Winds produce waves in the oceans, and the size of the waves depends on the strength and duration of the winds and how far the winds blow without interruption.
Swells are groups of large waves that outrun the wind or storm that generated them. Ships at sea may also face rogue, huge waves among smaller waves. These can cause a lot of damage.
Waves and winds occurring together during storms are particularly dangerous, including hurricanes, typhoons, and cyclones. These are huge and damaging storms.
They consist of high-speed winds rotating around a calm center called an eye. Predicting a hurricane’s formation, strength, duration, and path is integral to maritime forecasting.
Maritime Accidents Caused by Weather
Maritime weather can be unpredictable, so forecasting it is so important. Forecasting isn’t perfect, but it gives navigators and other crew the ability to make better route decisions.
High winds, storms, and waves or swells are the main types of weather that can cause maritime accidents. Any of these can cause ships to list heavily, which in turn can cause onboard accidents. Shifting cargo and equipment falls and overboard accidents can all result from rough weather and listing ships.
Ships can also be blown off course by severe weather, leading to serious accidents. These include running aground in shallow waters or on reefs, which can damage ships, throw crew members overboard, and even cause a ship to sink.
Weather can even cause a ship to run into another ship or an object like a bridge, which can cause similar accidents.
Weather Forecasting Methods
Maritime weather forecasting is largely conducted using satellites and weather stations.
Satellites are essential for tracking weather across oceans and other bodies of water. Meteorological satellites are dedicated to monitoring weather and include those that orbit at the poles of the Earth, stationary satellites that monitor just one part of Earth’s surface, and satellites that orbit the entire planet.
Satellites can gather information about clouds, the temperature of the air and water, currents, dust storms, ice coverage, and more.
Weather buoys and weather ships are floating weather stations that monitor maritime conditions. A moored buoy is a stationary device that can be tethered to one part of the ocean to collect weather information.
There are also drifting buoys that track weather as they move across oceans. There are currently more than 1,000 drifting weather buoys worldwide, helping to forecast marine weather.
Information taken from these weather stations and satellites is used by meteorologists and computer software to model currents and winds, track temperatures and storms, and predict what weather will happen next, where it will happen, and how it may impact ships and other vessels on the oceans.
Weather Forecasting Responsibilities
Various official organizations worldwide are responsible for tracking and predicting maritime weather and sharing that information with the public and commercial maritime operations.
In the U.S., the National Weather Service of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration tracks and predicts maritime weather, providing maps, forecasts, hazards, warnings, weather and storm models, and many other types of information that can be used by anyone heading out on the water.
Around the world, many countries have their own weather-tracking systems and agencies. Internationally, the World Meteorological Organization provides guidelines for how these agencies operate and provide information in international waters.
The Importance of Using Marine Weather Forecasting
The information provided by marine weather forecasting agencies is important for preventing accidents by avoiding storms and other weather-related hazards. The consequences of not using that information, ignoring it, or misusing or misjudging it can be severe. One tragic example is the disastrous accident of the El Faro cargo ship.
The El Faro was lost in Caribbean waters on October 1, 2015. A month later, the ship was found, sunk, and all 33 members of the crew died.
The ship had sailed right into Hurricane Joaquin from Florida to Puerto Rico. The subsequent investigation found that the captain, an experienced seaman, had the forecasting information about the storm but erred when he decided to keep the ship’s course and go right through the hurricane.
Even with the best predictive information, crew members can make flawed decisions about the weather that lead to disastrous results.
Maritime weather forecasting is essential for anyone in the maritime industry, from cargo ship captains to crew on smaller fishing vessels.
Weather can be highly unpredictable, but good forecasting can help crew make better choices and avoid the kinds of disasters that can lead to tragic accidents, injuries, lost cargo, ship damage, and lost lives.