This satellite video shows how cargo-ship backlogs in Southern California ports surged from 0 to 100 in 2 years

Port LA/LB
  • Satellite data from Spire Maritime shows how the shipping backlog in California has progressed.
  • Backlogs at ports in Los Angeles and Long Beach have broken multiple records this year.
  • Take a look at Spire Maritime’s video to see how the crisis grew to over 100 cargo ships.

Look no further than satellite data to see how congestion at ports in Southern California surged in the past two years.

Before the pandemic, the ports in Long Beach and Los Angeles typically averaged zero to one ships at anchor, waiting to dock and unload. The highest backlog that the ports, which are responsible for nearly half of all US imports, had seen was 17 ships, according to the executive director of the Marine Exchange of Southern California.

Time-lapsed data from Spire Maritime, a vessel-tracking company, tells the story of how the backlogs grew to encompass 100 ships.

The graphics, which were recreated from satellite Automated Identificatuin System (AIS) data, show cargo ships as red dots, while all other vessels, including cruise ships, tugboats, as well as personal ships, are shown in blue. Each dot on the graphic represents individual vessel’s location based on their AIS receiver.

In the satellite data from November 2019, it appears to show only two cargo ships that have not yet docked at the ports. The ports typically encounter more demand in the three months leading up to the holiday shopping season.

November 2019

LA/LB ports pre-pandemic
Southern California ports November 2019 Courtesy of Spire Maritime

At the onset of the pandemic, COVID-19 shutdowns slowed port traffic, as well as the locations’ capacity for unloading and reloading vessels. But, by the latter half of 2020, panic-buying and surging demand for tech as well as household products buoyed maritime traffic at the same time as the holiday-shopping season.

In a satellite depiction from the same month a year later, it shows what appears to be over 10 vessels waiting outside the ports.

November 2020

LA/LB port 11/20
Southern California ports November 2020 Spire Maritime

Backlogs truly began to pick up in 2021. The ports in Los Angeles and Long Beach hit multiple fresh records this year, as consumer demand continued to skyrocket, while the ports were still working to recover from COVID-19 setbacks.

In February, the ports hit a record 38 ships waiting to dock. The red dot groupings appear to show the ships waiting in designated holding patterns that provide clear shipping lanes for incoming and outgoing traffic.

February 2021

LA/LB 2/21
Southern California ports February 2021 Courtesy of Spire Maritime

Seven months later, that number nearly doubled – a sign the shipping crisis was here to stay. Consumers were hit with a new wave of shortages of anything from toilet paper and diapers to furniture and cars, while retailers hiked prices to offset record shipping prices.

September 2021

LA/LB 9/21
Southern California ports September 2021 Courtesy of Spire Maritime

Nearly two years later, a backlog of two ships has turned into about 100 ships – a crisis that has spawned an “everything shortage” and forced the White House to take action.

Experts predict the shipping crisis will only get worse in the coming months, as retailers prepare for the peak holiday shopping season.

October 2021

LA/LB 10.21
Southern California ports October 2021 Courtesy of Spire Maritime

The backlog is not expected to clear until 2023, according to industry officials.