Ocean Shipping in the Twenty-First Century, a Growing Concern

Posted : 10/15/12 2:09 PM

Ocean shipping in the 21st century is able to move record-breaking amounts of cargo with increasing speed and efficiency. Cargo vessels have been built to accommodate ever-increasing numbers of containers, and bulk carriers are growing in size as well. While the size of tankers for oil and other petroleum products appears to have peaked, that peak is at a very large level. The restraints on capacity for bulk carriers are not mainly a matter of difficulty in design and construction for a larger fleet, but more a matter of where such vessels can operate. For instance, bulk carriers for grain are built to be able to navigate the locks of the St. Lawrence Seaway since so many of these of ships use this route to move grain from the interior of North America out into international waters. Smaller ships must be used on other inland waterways, which is why all the really large ships are used mainly for ocean transit. The Panama Canal also exerts a size limitation on ships. That country is currently working on a multi-billion dollar, multi-year expansion of the locks and channels in the system in order to allow such large ships to pass through. Currently, the canal can only handle ships that can carry slightly over 5,000 containers. After completion, the project will be able to handle ships carrying up to 10,000 containers. The Suez Canal also has an influence on ship size, though to a lesser degree than the Panama Canal. Container ships have grown the most in size since they are best able to take advantage of the greater efficiency that greater numbers entail. The average container ship in use today has about sixteen times the capacity of the average freighter in use in the middle of the 20th century, yet the number of crew members on board has actually declined. Ever larger numbers of containers are being placed on ships. The larger numbers do not require more personnel, which brings down the cost of labor per unit. Further, so long as overall fuel costs do not rise very much, the per unit fuel expenditures go down with more containers. Container ships also offer many advantages when it comes to ease and speed of loading and unloading. Suitable cranes now exist in all the world’s major ports for handling this type of cargo. The containers can then be shipped to their final destination by rail or by truck. The system also allows for easy tracking of merchandise.