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Originally published January 24, 2011 at 9:10 PM | Page modified January 25, 2011 at 11:59 AM

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As 3,500 meteorologists meet, one man's forecast: Chance of pirates

Of the 3,500 scientists attending the American Meteorological Society meeting in Seattle this week, only one had a good reason to say: "Arrrrgh." While his colleagues swapped probabilistic equations, James Hansen came to talk about pirates.

Seattle Times science reporter

Of the 3,500 scientists attending the American Meteorological Society meeting in Seattle this week, only one had a good reason to say: "Arrrrgh."

While his colleagues swapped probabilistic equations, James Hansen came to talk about pirates.

Hansen rolled out some math of his own Monday as he explained his work to estimate the likelihood of attacks off the Horn of Africa and other hot spots, using weather data and an understanding of pirate behavior.

"Usually, I'm doing theoretical stuff down in the weeds," said Hansen, a Seattle-area native and applied mathematician at the Naval Research Laboratory in Monterey, Calif. "This is the only project where I can actually show pictures of the impact," he said, projecting images of Somali boatmen armed with missile-launchers and automatic weapons.

Though news coverage of pirate attacks has waned, the problem has worsened, Hansen said. Last year, there were nearly 450 attacks, with 53 ships captured and 1,181 crew members taken hostage. The estimated economic impact of the raids is $10 billion a year.

Even knowing the general location of pirate bases and their favored target areas, it's challenging for Navy and other patrol vessels to be in the right place at the right time, Hansen said.

"The Indian Ocean is really big."

The Navy will begin testing Hansen's model next month to see if it proves useful in helping direct patrol vessels and warn commercial ships when the risk of attack is high.

"Our mission is to try to protect ships," he said.

A piracy model

The project combines data on wind, waves and currents with intelligence gathered by informants, surveillance and other means on pirate habits: how far their small skiffs can travel; their assault tactics; the timing of forays.

Running the model yields maps that show the highest-risk areas. Adding real-time information on ship traffic can identify possible pirate targets.

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"It's sort of like tornado warnings," Hansen said. Everyone may know the probability of tornadoes spikes during the spring in Oklahoma. But what residents want to know is whether a twister is likely headed their way today.

The pirate model may be able to provide ship captains and security forces with that level of alert, by combining statistical odds with on-the-ground observations.

Weather is clearly important to pirates, who can't operate in rough seas, Hansen pointed out.

"These guys are running around in tiny ships."

The 2009 hijacking of the cargo ship Maersk Alabama occurred on a calm day in April, said Gordan Van Hook, senior director for innovation and concept development for U.S.-based Maersk Line Limited. Pirates held the ship's captain hostage for five days, before Navy SEALs shot and killed three of his captors.

Van Hook said Hansen's combination of weather data and intelligence sounds promising.

"It's logical," he said. "If they would publish areas that are highly likely to have pirate activity, that would be valuable."

Other technological approaches to thwart pirate attacks include enhanced tracking of vessels worldwide, combined with surveillance by satellites that can zoom in on suspicious vessels, said Guy Thomas, science and technology adviser for the Coast Guard.

Some Somali pirates now operate from large "mother ships" that extend their range as far as Indian waters, Thomas said.

Short-term response

While the ultimate solution to the pirate problem lies in economic development and political stability for volatile nations like Somalia, technologies to reduce attacks can play a role — as long as the U.S., the European Union and other seafaring nations share information, Thomas said.

But at Monday's presentation, Hansen wasn't able to reveal any real data because U.S. intelligence about pirates is classified. The Navy would like to share the information with allies, Hansen said, but federal rules may prevent it.

Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or sdoughton@seattletimes.com

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