Safety: As weather gets worse, we must be better

Written by Heather Ervin
Bad weather and maritime tragedies

Despite the best weather prediction data, some of the worst maritime disasters have occurred over the past several years due to the sudden onset of extreme weather. (Credit: Shutterstock/nexus7)

By Lt. Cmdr. Chad Yeamans, MS, SHRM-CP, Detachment Chief, USCG Investigations National Center of Expertise

Discussions at the COP26 global climate change conference have put a focus on the future impact of weather and climate on our lives. Of particular interest to the maritime community are reports that climate change causes an increase in both the frequency and severity of extreme weather.

The United Nations recently published a report on the increased frequency and severity of extreme weather over the past 50 years. The report highlights data confirming that weather-related disasters have continuously increased over the past few decades, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) as well as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) have published similar findings on the effects climate change has on weather.

Unfortunately, it appears that extreme weather will only be an increasing threat to our everyday lives and careers on the water. This does not come as a surprise to many of us as the data that supports this conclusion has existed for years. But at what point does this data become actionable? 

EXTREME WEATHER TRAGEDIES

Chad Yeamans

Despite having access to the best weather prediction data in history, some of the worst maritime disasters ever have occurred over the past several years due to the sudden onset of extreme weather. El Faro, Bounty, Stretch Duck, Scandies Rose, and Seacor Power are just some of the more recent tragedies that highlight a steady trend of marine casualties caused by extreme weather. This is particularly disturbing news, as those of us that live and work within the maritime transportation system should already understand that weather is an ever-present threat to the safety of human life.

We are not strangers to extreme weather and should not be caught off guard, yet the investigations into these tragic events show that many of the same factors occur time and time again. The most common of which is the unexpected onset of extreme weather and the underestimation of their effects. Still, each time disaster strikes investigations are conducted, causal factors identified, and safety recommendations made.

We have developed new technologies and established new procedures and regulations. We have taken tremendous steps together to create the safest waterways we could, yet the disturbing trend remains. Why this continues to happen despite our inherent understandings is a mystery. Those of us who investigate these incidents refer to this as a “latent unsafe condition,” an undiscovered set of materiel or human factors that given the right circumstances manifests itself in catastrophic results.

Perhaps the simple truth is that we cannot continue to make the same decisions with the same attitudes and expect different results, especially in the face of mounting data suggesting the problem is only going to get worse. Now more than ever, we have the data and technologies to prevent the vast majority of marine casualties due to weather. We just need to do it.

MARINE SAFETY ALERTS

To highlight this reality, the Coast Guard is publishing a Marine Safety Alert regarding sudden extreme weather dangers. The purpose of this Marine Safety Alert is to increase the awareness of operators in the marine transportation system and recreational boating community to sudden extreme weather events and provide strategies to combat them.

One focus of the safety alert is on the occurrence of sudden extreme weather or “pop-up” thunderstorms, which have become increasingly dangerous to the maritime community. However, the same perspectives can be extended to larger and more predictable weather events as well. Additional emphasis also needs to be placed on using the technology and tools already available to us. There are a plethora of tools available to help us predict, monitor, and mitigate extreme weather. Explore which combinations of technology, procedures, and attitudes work best for your specific vessel, region, or industry and put them in place. Embrace these things, incorporate them in your daily operations to create a culture of prevention, and remain humble in the face of Mother Nature.

The data suggests that weather is an increasing danger to the safety of human life at sea. We must remember our long and tragic history in the face of extreme weather, and take steps not to repeat it. We also must remember the many tools available to help us make good decisions, and we must remember that despite years of experience or even the best technology, actual conditions can greatly exceed expectations. We must remember that regardless of organization or role, everyone wants to get back home at the end of the day, and many didn’t. Finally, we must remember that almost nothing will serve us better in the long run than a little humility, and that we are all in this together.

Stay safe out there, friends.

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