Climate change behind ferry disruptions and shipping delays, Marine Atlantic says

Climate change behind ferry disruptions and shipping delays, Marine Atlantic says

Unusually choppy waters off the west coast of Newfoundland mean the island’s only transport truck ferry service has been seeing an onslaught of delays. 

And those repeated delays, says Marine Atlantic spokesperson Darrell Mercer, mean trucks carrying food, clothing and household goods aren’t arriving on time.

“There have been continuous storm systems that have been moving through with high winds,” Mercer said in an interview. “There have been disruptions.”

Crossings were cancelled Wednesday, the latest in a string of suspensions of service since the days leading up to Christmas.

Every time the ferry service gets a couple days of calm seas to recover, another system seems to move up through the northeastern seaboard, Mercer adds, impacting both its ports, in Argentia and Port aux Basques.

Even in the notoriously unpredictable North Atlantic, that’s not normal.

“The climate is changing, and we’re experiencing it first hand,” he said.

“They keep coming up that pathway,” Mercer said of the windy storm systems. “That type of a pattern seems to be becoming more regular now, and in years past we didn’t see that.”

Mercer estimates about half of all goods — and 70 per cent of fresh produce — shipped to Newfoundland arrive on trucks that reach the island on Marine Atlantic ferries. Bare shelves in stores, he says, are therefore directly linked to any delays the Crown-owned ferry service encounters.

A 203-foot ferry with Marine Atlantic lines and logo in waters off China, accompanied by three smaller boats as it is floated from dry dock.
Marine Atlantic’s new ferry, equipped with technological improvements that will allow it to fare better in violent seas, will be launched this year. (Marine Atlantic)

Complaints from retailers about supply shortages haven’t yet reached the ears of Jim Cormier, Atlantic director of the Retail Council of Canada.

But given the nature of the North Atlantic, he says, it’s only a matter of time.

“Usually we don’t start seeing winter taking its bite out of anyone until January, February, end of March,” he said.

While there’s no uptick yet in formal concerns relayed to the council, he’s wary of what’s to come — especially since flying the products in is simply too expensive for retailers, leaving no other option than to sail.

“Marine Atlantic generally does a good job of … bringing on additional crossings to clear out the backlog,” Cormier said.

“But if you’re a business dependent on product coming over, it does cause problems. Fresh produce is one of those products that does suffer.”

New tech combating stormy weather

If the fierce winds continue through the winter, the ferry’s captions will keep making decisions on a case-by-case basis: monitoring winds and wave heights, then balancing safety and passenger comfort against the inconvenience of a delay, said Mercer.

But the ferry service is trying to meet those changes head on.

“It’s an issue that the marine industry in general is looking at, because it’s not just Newfoundland and Labrador that’s seeing these changes in weather patterns, it’s around the world.”

Marine Atlantic in particular is eyeing technological improvements that will allow ships to sail in more challenging conditions. The newest addition to its fleet, the Ala’suinu — set to enter service this year — will incorporate some of those advanced mechanics.

Those include propulsion system adjustments, stabilizer technology, and propeller design, all of which help the large vessels move more fluidly and efficiently through choppy seas.

“There’s all kinds of new benefits that are being introduced,” Mercer said, “and I’m sure that’s going to continue years into the future, especially as we deal with what’s happening with the weather patterns.”

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