Suez Canal crisis sparks debate on a variety of topics

A March 28 satellite image from Planet Labs Inc. shows the cargo ship Ever Given stuck in the Suez Canal near Suez, Egypt. Photo: The Associated Press

By Robert C. Jones Jr.

A March 28 satellite image from Planet Labs Inc. shows the cargo ship Ever Given stuck in the Suez Canal near Suez, Egypt. Photo: The Associated Press

Suez Canal crisis sparks debate on a variety of topics

By Robert C. Jones Jr.
The massive container ship Ever Given ran aground in the Suez Canal amid a smothering sandstorm. University of Miami scholars discuss how the meteorological phenomenon can disrupt life and machinery and take a look at the potential fallout that lies ahead.

From his scuba diving camp in southern Egypt just off the Red Sea, Sam Purkis could see the massive curtain of sand in the distance racing toward him and knew he was in for the worst. The young Purkis had never experienced a sandstorm. All he knew about the unique weather phenomenon and how extreme such storms can be came from news accounts, books, and the recollections of friends who had lived through one. 

But that was about to change. 

When the sandstorm hit with all its raging winds, the sky went dark—a giant tidal wave of brown soot blocking out the sunlight. Purkis and the other campers could only hunker down and hope for the best. “We were sheltering on a hillside, which was fortunate as the flash flood tore through the wadi below and swept everything into the Red Sea,” Purkis, who was a dive instructor at the time, recalled of that eight-hour sandstorm more than 25 years ago. 

Cars, tents, trucks, two boats—the storm took everything, leaving Purkis with only the shorts he was wearing. 

Today, he is professor and chair of marine geosciences at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, spending much of his time conducting research on carbonate sediment environments. 

Every now and then, though, something happens somewhere around the world to remind him of the violent sandstorm he encountered back in the early 1990s. Most recently, it was the mammoth container ship Ever Given, which ran aground in the Suez Canal on March 23, blocking one of the world’s busiest maritime trade routes, that brought those memories rushing back for Purkis. 

While the investigation into the cause of the accident is ongoing, poor visibility and high winds generated from a sandstorm may have been one of the contributing factors. Investigators, who are also looking into technical reasons, just aren’t certain yet. But whatever the case, the strong desert storm that whipped over parts of Egypt’s Sinai Desert on that day has piqued interest in sandstorms—from what causes them to the amount of damage they can inflict. 

“Visibility in a sandstorm can diminish in an instant. It can look almost like night. And if it’s an intense storm, in some cases it takes the paint off cars,” Purkis said. 

It’s the amount of dust that’s moved around by a sandstorm that can reduce visibility to such low levels; and in a particularly intense storm, those dust volumes can reach immense proportions. 

“There’s nothing inherent to the dust properties, such as the dust size, that makes it more opaque than say smaller aerosols such as smoke,” said Paquita Zuidema, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the Rosenstiel School, who studies cloud processes and their radiative impacts. “These storms are very efficient at picking up the dust off the sandy places on our globe, and the Suez Canal runs through a very dry region.” 

One theory is that the high winds in the sandstorm pushed the Ever Given sideways, with the containers on deck acting as a vast sail. The question then becomes, why were the winds so high? “As I understand it, high winds are common this time of year in that area. It even has a name: khamsin, derived from the Arabic word for 50,” Zuidema explained. “These winds blow sporadically during about a 50-day time window. These storms can be triggered by mid-latitude disturbances, which is what causes the snowstorms in the U.S., and it does, indeed, look like Egypt was experiencing stormy conditions.” 

If the sandstorm were a factor in the ship’s grounding, it wouldn’t be the first time that dust played a role in affecting world events. “The Suez Canal is in a greater region known as the Afro-Asian dust belt with a history of life, war, and peace being disrupted by sandstorms,” said Ali Pourmand, associate professor of marine geosciences. During Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, he noted, a major sandstorm swept through Baghdad, playing havoc on military operations by reducing visibility and forcing grit into weapons systems. 

But the Mediterranean isn’t the only region experiencing dust storm activity this time of year. “Speaking globally, there’s been a lot of dust activity of late,” said Joseph Prospero, emeritus professor of atmospheric sciences at the Rosenstiel School, who has been studying the transport and impact of dust for decades. He noted the largest and strongest dust storm in a decade swept across northern China last month, driving air quality indexes in Beijing to dangerous levels. And in Mexico and western Texas during the past few weeks, enormous dust storms have produced plumes that have stretched out into the Central United States, he added. 

“We just don’t know, however, whether this is some sort of a climate anomaly,” Prospero continued. “These things are highly variable from year to year. We do know, of course, that the larger scale climate affects dust emissions. It’s an intriguing question of how much it’s driven by day-to-day meteorology and how much the day-to-day meteorology is driven by modulations in climate.” 

Thanks to a fleet of tugboats aided by a high tide, the skyscraper-size Ever Given is underway once again and the Suez Canal has been reopened. But the fallout over the incident is just beginning, as the blockage likely will result in billions of dollars in trade disruption as well as legal battles down the road. 

“We can expect years of complex litigation to recover the costs of the Ever Given ship repairs, the salvage operation, business delays, possible damages to cargo shipments, decisions of some captains to select alternative routes around the Cape of Good Hope, and even loss of canal revenues and damage to the canal,” said Daniel Suman, professor of marine affairs and policy at the School of Law and at the Rosenstiel School. “Cargo owners will sue the shipping company, who will file claims against the vessel owner. However, extended legal battles will largely be between the parties’ insurance companies. 

The incident could also potentially lead to changes in maritime policy, according to Suman. “Certainly, Suez Canal and Panama Canal authorities will reexamine their contingency plans particularly in light of the increase in new extremely large container vessels that present new risks to both these waterways,” he said. “The opening of Arctic ice-free maritime routes due to climate change may offer a cost-comparable alternative to canal transits for European to East Asian maritime traffic.”