What happens to shipping containers lost at sea?

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Brace yeselves fer a tale of the high seas. Out there, in the deep, there be abandoned shipping containers. Yarr.

The merchant vessel Med Taipei left San Francisco on February 25, 2004, in the middle of a winter storm. As the ship steamed south toward the Port of Los Angeles, it began rolling violently in seven- to nine-meter (23- to 30-foot) swells. In a rush to get his goods to port, the captain continued southward at high speed, despite the rolls. Unbeknownst to the captain and crew, the containers on their ship had been stacked incorrectly, with massive, heavy containers perched on top of lighter ones.

Shortly after midnight on February 26, when the Med Taipei was directly offshore of Monterey Bay, stacks of containers began to break free of their lashings and topple sideways. Fifteen of the 40-foot-long containers fell overboard into the churning sea. Yet the ship continued south. By the time the ship reached the Port of Los Angeles, nine more containers had fallen overboard, and another 21 lay crumpled on deck.

This kind of thing happens all the time. In fact, I've been told that one of the hazards of trans-oceanic sailing trips are lost shipping containers that haven't quite sunk yet, but are still hard to spot. In the middle of the Atlantic, the last thing you want is to pull a Titanic on a metal box full of lawn chairs. But what hadn't occurred to me is what happens after these containers find their way to the ocean floor. Now, that sentence would make a nice lead-in to telling you about how lost shipping containers affect the environments they drop in on. Unfortunately, though, nobody yet knows the answers to that question. It's not been studied before.

But that's about to change. See, one of the containers from the Med Taipei managed to land within the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, where it was discovered by scientists from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. This week, they're using a robotic submarine to study the container— which holds 1,159 steel-belted tires, if you're curious—and the impact it has on deep seafloor ecology. Better yet, the research is funded by the $3.25 million settlement that the owners of the Med Taipei paid to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

I'll be checking up on this later, to find out what the scientists learn from that box full of tires. When I find out, you'll be the first to know.

Via Joe Rojas-Burke

Image: © 2004 MBARI