What would happen if the Panama Canal didn't have locks?

Let’s just say that we allowed the water between the Atlantic and Pacific to flow freely through the isthmus of Panama. Would that lead to any environmental complications? Would the water always flow in one direction, or would it switch depending on season? What would the volume of the flow be?

Well, the lake that feeds the canal might drain and I’ve heard that the canal has introduced species of animals from one ocean to the other which probably isn’t a good thing.

Id’ say that the entire canal would have to be rebuilt in order to create a continuous passage and that there would be some very strong currents if it was.

You have assumed that there would be any flow at all. A 10 second google search reveals that the Panama Canal has a rise of over 80 feet. Without locks the canal would drain and there would be no flow.

I may be wrong (I have been wrong before, and I frequently am wrong), but I understood that the locks are needed because the interior of Panama is at a higher elevation than the seashores. Therefore the ships have to be raised up and then lowered again as they go from one side to the other. Much cheaper to build locks than to bulldoze the entire length of the canal to sea level.

OK, well assume that you bulldozed straight through at sea level (the lower sea level, of course).

OK, then, let me ask the question that the OP meant to ask: If the canal were deep enough to allow current to flow without locks, what would happen? Is there an appeciable difference in level between the Pacific and Atlantic/Gulf sides?

Live cams of the Miraflores & Gatun locks of the Panama canal.
USS New Jersey transits the Miraflores locks on October 18th, 1999

I guess a tide table for the two ends of the canal would be needed to answer this. The tidal bulge occurs at both ends of the canal at about the same time, but the local coastal configuration also affects the time of occurance of high and low tides.

If the Panama Canal didn’t have locks, someone might come by in the middle of the night and steal it.

[sub]OK, I’ll go away now…[/sub]

You’d most likely have a reversing tidal flow through the new strait, much like in the East River in NYC. The soft, landslide-prone soil would have a good chance of blocking it before long, though.

According to this tide chart, High Tide on March 24, 2004 at Balboa is 06:08AM at a height of 14.9 feet above Mean Lower Low Water.

On the same day at Cristobal, High Tide is 03:39AM at 0.8 feet over MLLW, and Low Tide is 11:18AM at 0.2 feet below MLLW (see this tide chart). So at 6:08 AM at Cristobal, the sea should be at 0.475 feet above MLLW. Generating, I believe, a fairly strong current from South to North through the Canal. This would have effects on wildlife distribution, erosion, and navigation.
For comparison, the Cape Cod Canal is a fairly short (17.4 miles) sea level canal and the difference in tides causes a 3-6 knot current. I do not know how to predict the strength of currents through a sea-level Panama Canal.

A sea-level canal just isn’t an option. Ferdinand de Lesseps, after gouging out the Suez Canal through dry, level land tried to do the same in Panama, with disasterous results. The Ismuth of Panama is a low mountain range webbed with rivers and streams going every which way. Because of this, a sea-level canal would requier a lot of digging that would colapse almost as soon at is was excavated.
(Hijack: if I woke up king of Mexico, I’d dig a canal through my country’s “ankle,” from the Bay of Campeche to the Gulf of Tehuantepec, wide enough for the biggest tankers in the Pemex fleet.)

Cecil’s answer.

Incidentally, I can see the Canal from the roof of this building.

Cecil’s answer, and some of the previous answers here, pretty much cover the question.

There have been a number of studies on the feasibility of converting the present canal to a sea-level passage, most notably in the 1960s. While not impossible, the proposal is not really considered to be practical for several reasons:

  1. It would be extremely expensive.
  2. A sea level canal would probably still require locks, due to the tidal flow problems mentioned. Tides on the Pacific are much greater than those on the Caribbean, and occur at different times.
  3. A diversion system would be needed to control the flow of the Chagres River, which is now confined in Gatun Lake and used to operate the locks.
  4. It would allow migration of marine fauna between the tropical Atlantic and Pacific, which is likely to cause substantial ecological disruption. For example, the coral-eating Crown-of-Thorns starfish could enter the Caribbean, as could poisonous sea snakes. Presently the fresh water in lake Gatun prevents most marine life from crossing, but a few species have made it through.

The canal channel has recently been widened. There are also some proposals to create a third set of locks to allow passage of larger ships. This will require additional water to operate the locks (during dry season of drought years, some restrictions are already needed), which will require additional large reservoirs.

Interesting idea, perhaps possible. There is a gap in the mountains south of Minatitlan, but there’s still a significant rise before you get down to Chiapas.

I’m also glad to see that my digging around was supported by The Master and SDSTAFF! W00t!

This canal could be made as wide as necessary-it could even accomodate supertankers. The route would be via Lake Nicaragua-so two locks would be necessay…and the fresh-water lake would prevent the problem of Pacific speciesinvading the Carribean Sea.
Souns like a plan…anybody know if this route has been seriously considered?

It has been proposed and considered many times in the past. Nothing has ever come of it. The idea of a Nicaraguan route was an early contender to the Panama Canal, and was revived as the turnover of the Canal Zone came closer to reality. Boosters continue to tout the attractions of this route, but no dirt has been turned.

I don’t recall the full details, but this was a very serious proposal in the decades prior to the Panama. For more, please David McCullough’s wonderful Path Between the Seas, which is still the authoritative work on the Canal.

I’ll vote to ratify that book recommendation, too. A couple of topics here that McCullough answers:

  1. The Compagnie Universelle never fully decided what to do with the Chagres River. De Lesseps (a fascinating figure) had some notion of diverting it through a tunnel to the Pacific side and out of the way, and had reluctantly agreed to the elevated lake with locks approach just before the operation went bankrupt, though. The river damming also provides hydroelectric power, not only to run the canal, but to power much of Panama.

  2. The Nicaraguan and Mexican routes, although they would have required shallower digging to get to sea level, would have been so much longer that the excavated volume would have been much greater, even with rivers and lakes to follow. Further, the transit times (and operating economics) for ships would be substantially greater, the number of changes of direction would be much greater, and size limitations would have been much more severe. Those same problems would exist today. The US takeover only seriously considered Nicaragua because of a much-too-high early estimate of the Compagnie’s buyout price.