Fact Check

No, Cargo Ships Have Not Stopped Traveling in the Atlantic Ocean

A misunderstanding of an AIS map led many people to believe that cargo ships had stopped traveling in the Atlantic.

Published Jan. 12, 2016

Aerial view of cargo ship, cargo container in warehouse harbor at thailand . (Getty Images)
Aerial view of cargo ship, cargo container in warehouse harbor at thailand . (Image Via Getty Images)
For the first time in history the North Atlantic is empty of cargo ships in-transit.

On 8 January 2016, the web site Superstation 95 published an article claiming that for the first time in history, there were no cargo ships traveling in the North Atlantic:

cargo ships

Commerce between Europe and North America has literally come to a halt.  For the first time in known history, not one cargo ship is in-transit in the North Atlantic between Europe and North America.  All of them (hundreds) are either anchored offshore or in-port.  NOTHING is moving.

This has never happened before.  It is a horrific economic sign; proof that commerce is literally stopped.

The reason commerce has stopped is simple: People are not buying things.   When people do not buy things, retailers do not sell things, so they do not order more goods for stock.

The claims made in the Superstation 95 article are based solely on the above-displayed map, which was taken from MarineTraffic.com. While this map is real, it is not evidence that all cargo ships have stopped sailing in the North Atlantic Ocean.

MarineTraffic.com uses AIS (Automatic Identification System) to create its cargo ship maps. While this system allows MarineTraffic.com to collect cargo ship data from around the world, this system requires ships to be within a limited range of a base station:

Normally, vessels with an AIS receiver connected to an external antenna placed on 15 meters above sea level, will receive AIS information within a range of 15-20 nautical miles. Base stations at a higher elevation, may extend the range up to 40-60 NM, even behind remote mountains, depending on elevation, antenna type, obstacles around antenna and weather conditions. The most important factor for better reception is the elevation of the base station antenna. The higher, the better. We have seen vessels 200 NM away, with a small portable antenna placed on an island mountain on 700 meters altitude! Our base stations cover fully a range of 40 miles and periodically receive information from some more distant vessels.

In the web site's FAQ section, MarineTraffic.com writes that a ship may not be visible on a map for a number of reasons. Mainly, the AIS system only covers coastal areas:

The MarineTraffic system does not cover all the seas of the world, but only specific coastal areas where a land-based AIS receiver is installed. Vessels appearing on the live map are equipped with an operational AIS transponder and they sail within the reception range of an AIS receiver installed on the land.

An AIS system is not ideal for tracking cargo ships in the middle of the ocean. Luckily, AIS also uses satellite information to track ships. On 12 January 2016, Marine Traffic posted an image to Twitter along with a message stating that there were "thousands of cargo ships in-transit" in the North Atlantic:

cargo ships north atlantic

Marine Traffic's Tim Soare confirmed that the Superstation 95 article used a terrestrial AIS map, which only has a range of about 15-20 nautical miles, while the map tweeted by Marine Traffic used a combination of terrestrial AIS and satellite AIS data:

The image posted/tweeted by MarineTraffic combined terrestrial AIS data with satellite AIS data. MarineTraffic has a partnership with satellite communications firm Orbcomm.

The image shown would normally only be available to SAT plan subscribers.

Terrestrial AIS, as you correctly note in your article is only effective out to a range of about 15-20 nautical miles, so satellite AIS is needed to track ships mid-oceans.

Superstation95 has generated several fake news stories, including one that posited that the December 2015 San Bernardino mass shooting was because of an argument over pork served at a Christmas party.

Dan Evon is a former writer for Snopes.