The satellite image sparking fears of a worldwide crisis

Olivia Lambert
·News Editor
·5-min read

A striking satellite image shows the severity of the shipping traffic jam after a vessel blocked one of the world's busiest shipping channels for trade linking Asia and Europe.

The huge container ship, Ever Given, has blocked the Suez Canal like a "beached whale" and could take weeks to free, the salvage company said, as officials stopped all ships entering the channel on Thursday (local time) in a new setback for global trade.

The man-made Suez Canal connects the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean via the Red Sea, creating a more direct route for shipping between Europe and Asia.

Vessels are seen backed up at the Suez Canal after it was blocked by the Ever Given ship in an aerial photo.
Vessels are backed up after the Suez Canal was blocked by a huge container ship. Source: Planet Labs

It acts as a passage from the North Atlantic to the Indian Ocean so vessels don't have to circumnavigate through treacherous waters around the Cape of Good Hope on the African continent.

The Ever Given "megaship" is longer than four football fields and is wedged diagonally across the entire canal, where about 10 per cent of world trade by volume passes through – so the traffic jam is a big problem as it could impact the global flow of oil and gas.

The satellite image from Planet Labs shows the backlog of dozens of vessels. Almost 19,000 ships passed through the canal in 2020, so on average that's about 51.5 ships that travel through the 193-kilometre canal every day.

A total of 206 large container ships, tankers carrying oil and gas, and bulk vessels hauling grain have backed up at either end of the canal, according to tracking data, creating one of the worst shipping jams seen for years.

The canal is the shortest sea link between Asia and Europe. The Singapore-Rotterdam route, for example, is 6000km long and the canal cuts two weeks off the trip rather than if they had to travel around the Cape of Good Hope.

The Ever Green vessel blocks Egypt's Suez Canal.
The Ever Given vessel became lodged in the canal this week. Source: Reuters

In an interview with the BBC, associate professor at Campbell University and maritime expert Sal Mercogliano warned the effect on world trade and vaccine supplies could be “catastrophic”.

“Because of Covid, you know how badly things have slowed down with moving goods, and now all of a sudden you add this and you’re going to have a delay getting goods to markets,” he said.

“We’re talking about vaccines, manufacturing goods, food, everything. It’s potential catastrophic delays.

“Ten per cent of the world’s trade goes through the Suez Canal and you average about 50 vessels a day."

Ever Given vessel could be stuck for weeks

The Suez Canal Authority (SCA) said earlier that nine tugs were working to move the vessel, which got stuck diagonally across the single-lane southern stretch of the canal on Tuesday morning amid high winds and a dust storm.

"We can't exclude it might take weeks, depending on the situation," Peter Berdowski, CEO of Dutch company Boskalis – one of two rescue teams trying to free the ship, told the Dutch television programme "Nieuwsuur".

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The world's number-one line A.P. Moller Maersk said it was considering diverting vessels around Africa's Cape of Good Hope, adding five to six days to the journey between Asia and Europe.

It said time-sensitive cargo could be sent on trains and airplanes, although no decisions had yet been made.

Russia offers Northern Sea alternative

Russia cheekily pushed the Northern Sea Route on Thursday as an "alternative" to Egypt's Suez Canal.

President Vladimir Putin has long promoted the passage along the country's Siberian coast as a rival to the Suez Canal, and Russia seized on the Egyptian route's traffic jam to play it up again.

The Japanese-owned, Panama-flagged MV Ever Given got stuck during a sandstorm.

Russia's nuclear agency Rosatom on Thursday gave three tongue-in-cheek reasons "to consider Northern Sea Route as a viable alternative to the Suez Canal Route".

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The first reason, Rosatom said on its English-language Twitter account, was that the Arctic passage provides "way more space to draw peculiar pictures using your giant ships".

Rosatom included a link to a news article that reported that a tracking map showed the giant ship had made the shape of male genitals before becoming stuck.

If ships get stuck in the Northern Sea Route, Russia would send ice-breakers to help dislodge them, said the nuclear agency, which is the passage's official infrastructure operator.

Rosatom also posted an animated image from the "Austin Powers" series depicting its main character stuck in a shuttle car reversing back and forth in a narrow tunnel — photoshopped with the Panama-flagged vessel.

"You might get stuck in the Suez Canal for days," the nuclear agency said.

with Reuters and AFP

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