An intense Pacific storm, given the designation "bomb" by meteorologists because of its intense and rapid drop in pressure, overwhelmed several commercial ships that were bound for U.S. ports in late October. Although no vessels were sunk during the storm, which intensified rapidly off the coast of Japan and quickly swept northeastward, more than 400 containers were lost over the side as box stacks collapsed in rough seas and strong winds.
Damaged boxes hung like draperies from the sides of the 905-foot containership APL China as it steamed into Seattle November 1 after the storm. Of four containerships in the storm's path, APL China and President Adams were hardest hit: the ships lost a total 388 boxes over the side and 400 more were damaged.
The storm was considered unusual because it occurred in latitudes that do not typically experience storms of this intensity so early in the winter season, according to forecasters with the National Weather Service (NWS).
"This storm was an explosive deepener which formed quickly ENE of Japan and then really went to town as it moved northeast across the Pacific," said Joe Sienkiewicz, a senior forecaster with the NWS in Suitland, Md. While the storm was not classified as a typhoon, since it formed north of the tropics, pressure gradients and surface conditions were equally intense in this storm.
The storm was first identified on Oct. 22 and was forecast to move northeast and intensify. On Oct. 24 the storm had a low pressure of 1002 mb. Pressure then dropped to 984 mb 24 hours later, and the storm was given the label "bomb" on surface weather charts, which would have been received at seavia Comsat, HF facsimile, SSBby commercial vessels and by commercial weather-routing services. In the next 24 hours, pressure plummeted to 963 mb, eventually reaching its lowest of 953 mb on Oct. 26. Wind speeds were between 50 and 60 knots and seas were more than 50 feet, according to ship reports.
"The North Pacific gets storms like this in winter all the time, but it's unusual for a storm of this intensity to develop this early and this far south," Sienkiewicz added.
The storm hurtled across the Pacific at more than 35 miles per hour, which perhaps accounts for why the vessels were overtaken, despite advance warning from weather forecasters. The ships, which were overtaken two days after the storm was first identified, had not deviated from their regular great circle routes between Asia and the U.S. West Coast. The storm caught up with the vessels near the International Dateline Oct. 26, when the storm was at its strongest, according to Sienkiewicz.
Why the vessels did not divert from the storm's path is a complicated issue. Bound by tight schedules, containership operators typically do not divert ships except for the most extreme tropical storms, according to multiple ship reports. Some vessel masters choose not to subscribe to commercial services, according to an official with a commercial routing service. An investigation into which ships were provided with routing services had not been completed at press time, pending litigation.
This storm developed in a similar way to the storm that overwhelmed the Sydney-Hobart race yachts. In that case, the warm East Australian Current, which was running against prevailing winds and causing steep, breaking seas, fueled the developing storm, according to Michael Carr of Weather Strategies on Peaks Island, Maine. See complete story on page 56.