The Panama Canal

Good view of the locks in the Panama Canal -c
The Panama Canal (Spanish: Canal de Panamá) is a 48-mile (77.1 km) ship canal in Panama that connects the Atlantic Ocean (via the Caribbean Sea) to the Pacific Ocean. The canal cuts across the Isthmus of Panama and is a key conduit for international maritime trade. There are locks at each end to lift ships up to Gatun Lake (85 feet (26 m) above sea-level). The Gatun Lake was used to reduce the amount of work required for a sea-level connection. The current locks are 110 feet (33.5 m) wide. A third, wider lane of locks is being built.
 
Work on the canal, which began in 1881, was completed in 1914, making it no longer necessary for ships to sail the lengthy Cape Horn route around the southernmost tip of South America (via the Drake Passage) or to navigate the dangerous[citation needed] waters of the Strait of Magellan. One of the largest and most difficult engineering projects ever undertaken, the Panama Canal shortcut made it possible for ships to travel between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans in half the time previously required. The shorter, faster, safer route to the U.S. West Coast and to nations in and along the Pacific Ocean allowed those places to become more integrated with the world economy.
 
During this time, ownership of the territory that is now the Panama Canal was first Colombian, then French, and then American before coming under the control of the Panamanian government in 1999. The Panama Canal has seen annual traffic rise from about 1,000 ships when it opened in 1914, to 14,702 vessels in 2008, the latter measuring a total of 309.6 million Panama Canal/Universal Measurement System (PC/UMS) tons. By 2008, more than 815,000 vessels had passed through the canal, many of them much larger than the original planners could have envisioned; the largest ships that can transit the canal today are called Panamax.[1] The American Society of Civil Engineers has named the Panama Canal one of the seven wonders of the modern world.[2]
 
The earliest mention of a canal across the Isthmus of Panama dates to 1534, when Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, ordered a survey for a route through the Americas that would ease the voyage for ships traveling between Spain and Peru. Such a route would have given the Spanish a military advantage over the Portuguese.[3] During an expedition from 1788 to 1793, Alessandro Malaspina outlined plans for its construction.[4]
 
Given the strategic location of Panama and the potential offered by its narrow isthmus separating two great oceans, other trade links in the area were attempted over the years. An ill-fated Darien scheme was launched by the Kingdom of Scotland in 1698 to set up an overland trade route, but generally inhospitable conditions thwarted the effort, and it was abandoned in July 1699.[5]
In 1849, the discovery of gold in California created great interest in a crossing between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Eventually, the Panama Railway was built to cross the isthmus, opening in 1855. This overland link became a vital piece of Western Hemisphere infrastructure, greatly facilitating trade and largely determining the later canal route.
 
An all-water route between the oceans was still seen as the ideal solution, and in 1855 William Kennish, a Manx-born engineer working for the United States government, surveyed the isthmus and issued a report on a route for a proposed Panama Canal.[6] His report was published in a book entitled The Practicality and Importance of a Ship Canal to Connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.[7] Encouragement for the idea of a canal was provided by the French success in building the Suez Canal.
 
Construction
 
While, globally, the Atlantic Ocean is east of the isthmus and the Pacific to the west, the general direction of the canal passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific is from northwest to southeast. This is because of a local anomaly in the shape of the isthmus at the point the canal occupies. The Bridge of the Americas (Spanish: Puente de las Américas) at the Pacific side is about a third of a degree east of the Colón end on the Atlantic side.[34] Still, in formal nautical communications, the simplified directions “Southbound” and “Northbound” are used.
The canal consists of artificial lakes, several improved and artificial channels, and three sets of locks. An additional artificial lake, Alajuela Lake (known during the American era as Madden Lake), acts as a reservoir for the canal. The layout of the canal as seen by a ship passing from the Atlantic to the Pacific is as follows:[35]
  • From the formal marking line of the Atlantic Entrance, one enters Limón Bay (Bahía Limón), a large natural harbour. The entrance runs 5.4 mi (8.7 km). It provides a deepwater port (Christóbal), with facilities like multimodal cargo exchange (to and from train) and the Colón Free Trade Zone (a free port).
  • A 2.0 mi (3.2 km) channel forms the approach to the locks from the Atlantic side.
  • The Gatun locks, a three-stage flight of locks 1.2 mi (1.9 km) long, lifts ships to the Gatun Lake level, some 87 ft (26.5 m) above sea level.
  • Gatun Lake, an artificial lake formed by the building of the Gatun Dam, carries vessels 15 mi (24.2 km) across the isthmus. It is the summit canal stretch, fed by the Gatun river and emptied by basic lock operations.
  • From the lake, the Chagres River, a natural waterway enhanced by the damming of Gatun Lake, runs about 5.3 mi (8.5 km). Here the upper Chagres river feeds the high level canal stretch.
  • The Gaillard cut (or Culebra cut) slices 7.8 mi (12.6 km) through the mountain ridge, crosses the continental divide and passes under the Centennial Bridge.
  • The single-stage Pedro Miguel lock, which is 0.87 mi (1.4 km) long, is the first part of the descent with a lift of 9.5 meters (31 ft).
  • The artificial Miraflores Lake, 1.1 mi (1.7 km) long, and 16.5 meters (54 ft) above sea level.
  • The two-stage Miraflores locks, is 1.1 mi (1.7 km) long, with a total descent of 54 ft (16.5 m) at mid-tide.
  • From the Miraflores locks one reaches Balboa harbour, again with multimodal exchange provision (here the railway meets the shipping route again). Nearby is Panama City.
  • From this harbour an entrance/exit channel leads to the Pacific Ocean (Gulf of Panama), 8.2 mi (13.2 km) from the Miraflores locks, passing under the Bridge of the Americas.
Thus, the total length of the canal is 48 mi (77.1 km).
 
To improve capacity, a number of improvements have been imposed on the current canal system. These improvements aim to maximize the possible use of current locking system:[66]
  • Implementation of an enhanced locks lighting system;
  • Construction of two tie-up stations in Gaillard Cut;
  • Widening Gaillard Cut from 192 to 218 metres (630 to 715 ft);
  • Improvements to the tugboat fleet;
  • Implementation of the carousel lockage system in Gatun locks;
  • Development of an improved vessel scheduling system;
  • Deepening of Gatun Lake navigational channels from 10.4 to 11.3 metres (34 to 37 ft) PLD;
  • Modification of all locks structures to allow an additional draft of about 0.30 metres (0.98 ft);
  • Deepening of the Pacific and Atlantic entrances;
  • Construction of a new spillway in Gatun, for flood control.
These improvements will enlarge the capacity from 280–90 million PCUMS (2008) to 330–40 PCUMS (2012).

 Competition

Despite having enjoyed a privileged position for many years, the canal is increasingly facing competition from other quarters. Because canal tolls are expected to rise, some critics[67] have suggested that the Suez Canal may become a viable alternative for cargo en route from Asia to the U.S. East Coast.[citation needed] The Panama Canal, however, continues to serve more than 144 of the world’s trade routes and the majority of canal traffic comes from the “all-water route” from Asia to the U.S. East and Gulf Coasts via the Panama Canal.[citation needed]
The increasing rate of melting of ice in the Arctic Ocean has led to speculation that the Northwest Passage or Arctic Bridge may become viable for commercial shipping at some point in the future. This route would save 9,300 km (5,800 mi) on the route from Asia to Europe compared with the Panama Canal, possibly leading to a diversion of some traffic to that route. However, such a route is beset by unresolved territorial issues and would still hold significant problems owing to ice.[68]
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