Waiting To Unload: Global Supply Chain Disruption Visible From NASA Satellites

7 mins read

The pandemic has disrupted global supply chains and markets in ways that have led to backlogs of cargo ships at key ports.

Booming demand for consumer and goods, labor shortages, bad weather, and an array of COVID-related supply chain snarls are contributing to backlogs of cargo ships at ports around the world.

Among those seaports are the Port of Los Angeles and Port of Long Beach in Southern California, the two busiest container ports in the United States. On October 10, 2021, the Operational Land Imager (OLI) on Landsat 8 captured this natural-color image of dozens of cargo ships waiting offshore for their turn to unload goods. On the same day, the Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) on NASA’s Terra satellite acquired similar imagery (below).

Ports of LA and Long Beach Backup

On October 10, 2021, NASA’s Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) instrument captured an image of over 70 ships waiting to dock and unload at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, due to a supply-chain crunch. The image covers an area of 14 by 16 miles (23 by 25 kilometers). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

According to data released by the Marine Exchange of Southern California, there were 87 container ships in the vicinity of the two ports on that day. Twenty-seven ships were in berths and 60 were waiting (either anchored or floating in drift zones) offshore. The number of ships waiting was down from a record-high of 73 on September 19, 2021. The two ports have had unusually large numbers of waiting ships since June 2020. Before then, cargo ships rarely waited to unload.

Ship backlogs at ports are not limited to Los Angeles. Elsewhere in the United States, ports in New York, New Jersey, Georgia, and Texas have faced similar challenges, according to news reports. Meanwhile, China’s Yantian port in Shenzhen has more than 67 container ships waiting, partly because tropical cyclone Kompasu caused the port to temporarily close. Ports in Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Shanghai all had 10 or more container ships waiting in mid-October, according to Bloomberg.

NASA-funded researchers have used satellites and other tools to track different ways that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed aspects of human activity and its impact on the environment. Researchers have tracked indicators ranging from air pollution and night time light activity and shipping. In particular, the Interagency Implementation and Advanced Concepts Team (IMPACT) at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center has been using artificial intelligence technology and high-resolution satellite imagery to track shipping activity at major U.S. ports.

NASA Earth Observatory image by Joshua Stevens, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey.

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