11 February 2016
Over the last year or so there’s been some embarrassing missteps by politicians, TV networks (and recently here), and now a cruise ship company with regard to storms that hit without warning. In everyone one of these cases, the archived forecasts show that the opposite was true, and there was plenty of warning. The latest case in point was late Sunday when the cruise ship Anthem of the Seas sailed headlong into an explosively deepening low pressure system in the Western Atlantic. The storm was predicted to bring hurricane force winds and that is what happened with winds of over hurricane force, and seas well over 24 feet.
The cruise company has been quoted in numerous press reports as saying that they “did not anticipate what the true strength of the storm would be”, and obviously this is true, since no one in their right mind would sail into hurricane force winds and seas the size of small mountains. That does not mean that they SHOULD have known though, and the NOAA Ocean Prediction Center made it clear up to 48 hours before the storm and the ship met, that this would be a very powerful storm. This cruise ship was very lucky, because they risked the lives of 5000 people, and came home with only minor injuries. Word is that the NTSB is now looking into what happened, and that’s a good idea.
My friend and fellow meteorologist John Morales in Miami posted some wise words on his Facebook page today about the incident. John works in Miami (where cruise ships come and go with regularity) and his opinion is very valued by his viewers:
By now you’ve probably heard of the Anthem of the Seas, the Royal Caribbean ship that ran into — as the captain likes to say — “a low pressure whose intensity was not forecasted”. Let me categorically say that the storm was indeed forecast. The map I’ve included here is the 48 hour forecast from NOAA NWS Ocean Prediction Center which clearly stated “RPDLY INTSFYING” and “DVLPG HURCN FORCE” off the east coast of the United States.
Other text and graphical products from that office and others warned of the developing gale. This event is eerily similar to the incident in which the Freedom of the Seas, after leaving Port Canaveral, “core-punched” a rapidly intensifying low pressure system north of Grand Bahama on 9 October 2011. There are many common themes: a gigantic modern ship carrying thousands of passengers that’s may be perceived as “too big to fail” by cruise line officers, a possible superficial or glancing look at the weather forecasts without digging deeply into details or possible changes, and an apparent perception that all the captain needs to worry about is wave heights so that wind intensity is not sufficiently considered.
Sure, these giant ships with their modern stabilizers can handle 30 foot seas. But in both incidents it’s the wind that’s caused the damage (and sometimes injuries to the passengers), because the pressure of 100+ MPH winds hitting what is essentially a “floating building” can make the ship list several degrees, enough to send furniture, objects, and people tumbling. It’s more than likely that there will be litigation stemming from this incident (like there was for the Freedom of the Seas), at which time the details of how something like this could happen (again) will come forth.
Perhaps it is time to pass some maritime regulations that ships sailing from U.S. ports MUST avoid areas where seas and winds are predicted to be in excess of a safe amount. Royal Caribbean has certainly taken a hit on their reputation, and it’s worth remembering that “get their-itis” can be a deadly disease for pilots of cars, planes, trains, and large ocean-going vessels.
The survivors of the Titanic would agree I think. The cruise ship companies should all take this lesson to heart, and train their staff better. Hiring some staff meteorologists might be a good idea as well.