Updated Mar 24, 2021 - Energy & Environment

Massive container ship gets stuck in Suez Canal, causing maritime traffic jam

Workers next to a container ship that was hit by strong winds and ran aground in the Suez Canal, Egypt.

Workers next to a container ship that was hit by strong winds and ran aground in the Suez Canal, Egypt. Photo: Suez Canal Authority via Reuters

A huge container ship got stuck in the Suez Canal late Tuesday, causing a massive maritime traffic jam.

Why it matters: The Suez accounts for approximately 30% of container shipping volumes, and blocking it for even a short time will cause oil prices to rise — and remind us that the entire global economy relies on really, really big ships.

Driving the news: The Ever Given was heading from China to the Netherlands when it ran aground Tuesday after getting caught in poor visibility and high winds from a sandstorm.

  • Because the 1,312-foot ship found itself wedged across the width of the canal, traffic through the all-important maritime chokepoint may be disrupted for days.
  • And almost as importantly, the accident gave birth to many, many memes.

The big picture: Even as COVID-19 brought the virtual realm to the forefront, the world economy still chiefly runs on actual, physical stuff — and much of that actual, physical stuff is brought to us in the holds of vast container ships.

  • The pandemic has disrupted the flow of global trade, with consumers in the U.S. ordering so many goods online from manufacturers in China that the world was running low on shipping container boxes.

By the numbers: There are currently over 5,000 container ships operating around the world, with more than 20 million 20-foot-equivalent cargo containers.

  • As vast as the oceans are, much of the world's shipping — and especially the oil that keeps the economy running — flows through just seven major maritime chokepoints, including the Suez Canal.
  • While e-commerce grew by 44% in 2020 as we increasingly shopped from home, all those online orders would be useless without container ships to carry them out.

The bottom line: Apparently, all it takes to put a spoke in the wheel of globalization is one very large ship in one very wrong place.

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