Satellite Images Show Massive Armada Of Idle Cargo Ships Waiting To Dock In Long Beach

The huge logjam of maritime cargo traffic trying to unload cargo in Long Beach harbor has reached epic proportions as seen in these images from space.

byTyler Rogoway|
U.S. Homeland photo


The massive backlog of cargo ships stacking up off the port of Long Beach, California, is making headlines. It's a complicated situation, with multiple factors contributing to the unprecedented situation, including labor shortages at the docks, growing ship sizes, and COVID-safety measures slowing down the processing of each ship's cargo, as well as a big uptick in incoming cargo, among others. Well over 60 ships are awaiting their turn to offload and the massive delay there, as well as at other U.S. ports, is impacting an already rickety supply chain that has been battered by the logistical fits and starts of the pandemic.

The best way to understand just how bad the problem has become is visually. With this in mind, we obtained recent satellite imagery of the area. The image at the top of this post was taken using satellite-based synthetic aperture radar (SAR), with each big ship showing up as a bright glimmer among the black backdrop of the ocean. Here is an even wider angle:

Sentinel Hub/Copernicus

We also obtained optical satellite imagery from Planet Labs that was taken on September 29, 2021: 


For comparison, this was taken just one year earlier, on September 24, 2020:


As you can see, the difference is absolutely massive, and these are just the ships anchored close-in. Finally, we have a shot of what Automatic Identification System (AIS) transponder data shows off Long Beach, and it is remarkable to behold:

As you can see in the wider shot below, there are dozens more cargo ships holding farther off the coast, near Santa Catalina or to the north of it. In all, we count roughly 80 cargo ships that appear to be sitting idle.

With shipping at California's biggest port up nearly by a third compared to a year ago and ongoing complications due to COVID-19, delays in cargo transfers have been present throughout the year, but they have been elevated to a new high for the fall shipping season. Many of the goods that get shipped during this time of year are meant to stock retail outlets' shelves during the holiday season, for instance. 

Delays in that numbered days or weeks have quickly turned into many weeks or even months as a result. Now major logistics companies are looking for any open port on the west coast to redirect their cargoes, even if it is extremely inconvenient and may shatter the established shipping price model. Of course, all these impacts tend to snowball and lead to even more delays and ballooning shipping costs down the line. 

It's also worth noting that this was an incredibly busy weekend for the area in general, with the massive Huntington Beach Air Show in the mix. This is a remote air show with acts flying over the surf and throngs of people watching from the beach. It turned out that this big event was cut short, with Sunday's show being canceled due to an oil spill in the immediate show area, which is located right by where a gaggle of cargo ships is anchored. 

A satellite image of the Huntington Beach Air Show from Saturday, October 2, 2021. , PHOTO © 2021 PLANET LABS INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. REPRINTED BY PERMISSION

The spill, which was initially reported as being nearly six miles long and 13 square miles in area, was very close to some of California's most popular beaches, which had to be closed. The spill was the result of a leak from an offshore oil platform named Elly. The platform works to process crude oil from two other platforms nearby that are tapped into the Beta oilfield. Globs of oil have already started to show up on Huntington Beach and in nearby wetlands. The spill is estimated to be 126,000 gallons and a major containment operation is now underway.

While some measures are being put into place that may help the situation, there are no clear indications that this logjam of cargo ships will be alleviated anytime soon. In fact, it may grow further before it eventually subsides. It's yet another maritime reminder of the sometimes bizarre reality the post-COVID-19 world faces and of the real economic impacts that continue to reverberate from the global crisis.

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