Widen/enlarge the Panama Canal?

NPR had a good story this morning on plans to widen and enlarge the Panama Canal. The canal is extremely busy these days, but the very biggest ships can’t fit through it. Ships designed to the 1914 “Panamax” standard have to go through verrrrrrrry slowly to avoid damage, which reduces the number of ships which can use the canal.

Despite the expectations of some critics, the Panamian government seems to be doing a pretty good job of running the canal since the 2000 handover from the U.S. There will soon be a national referendum on a plan to spend $1 billion over the next seven years to upgrade the canal. It’s implied that passage fees will be increased to cover the expense. Early polls in Panama show strong public support for the project. However, some are worried that the canal’s current flush times are largely due to the Chinese economic boom (much of China’s exports to the U.S. come through the canal), and if that boom falters or ends, the expansion project will fail.

Sounds like a good idea to me, though. What do you think?

It’s a risk, obviously, but if I were a bank/investment firm I would give a serious look at the specifics of their proposal. In general, it’s probably a good idea.

Slight hijack.

What ever became of the idea of building another canal? Something without locks in another part of Central America.

End slight hijack.

How long does it take to flush the canal?

There have been a number of ‘specials’ about this on Discovery and the History channels. There are issues far beyond monetary for this expansion (mostly in the managing of the water supply for flooding the locks and the unstable geology of the lake area); which could make the expansion kill the existing canal. That would effectively destroy Panama’s economy, it is a BIG gamble.

Even at the time the canal was originally built, it still was less expensive than the proposed alternative across Nicaragua, which would have been much longer and twistier. A simple widening of the current canal should be even more emphatically the winner of a cost comparison.

Any idea how much it costs to keep a megasize freighter for 2 more weeks, around the Horn, compared to what Panama would charge as a fee? It’s all about the money, of course - if it would pay off, it’s a great idea; if it wouldn’t, it isn’t.

A couple days. Longer if you have to jiggle the handle.

I’m assuming the OP means that the canal is turning a great profit because of Chinese shipping.

You can’t enlarge the existing canal without shutting it down (actually you can’t enlarge it at all, due to some geological issues, but that doesn’t really matter), which would destroy Panama’s economy.

Has anybody here been through the Canal? I have, on a Navy destroyer.

Now, a smallish ship like a destroyer can get through the Canal pretty quickly. Those larger freighters would have no margin of error, though, in the locks and channels. I saw this firsthand.

Freighters are not getting any smaller, and many of them simply bypass the Canal altogether. There may well be a point in the near future when the Canal becomes functionally obsolete, as the costs of keeping a freighter at sea for a few more days falls well below canal fees and increased carrying capacity.

This would kill Panama’s economy as well.

It won’t matter as much if the Northwest Passage becomes ice-free in the next decade or so. It provides a shorter route for some Europe-Asian trips. I wonder if investors have to take into account the decreased traffic due to potential global warming in their plans as well.

Don’t worry if the average temperature rises enough to de-ice the NW passage, we will have massive famine, and will need to ship less. Then the current PanaMax would be too large for most shipments. Situation fixed :rolleyes:

If/when the Chinese boom falters or ends, the economic viability of the Panama Canal will be the least of our worries.

I’ve heard that there are two issues:
-it is currently cheaper to offload cargo at Los Angeles (another Chinese-controlled operation) and put the stuff on railroad cars.
-most East Coast ports don’t have anything to send back to china 9except for scrap steel0. So it makes little sense for chinese-cargo freighters to steam to east coast ports.
-the water capacity of gatun Lake is already barely able to maintain water levels in the canal. Widening the locks would increase the water demand. Gatun lake would be impassible for normal draft ships if the water level were to decline significantly.
I always wondered why they didn’t balst a new (sealevel) canal through lake Nicaragua-atomic explosives would make short workof it.

Besides the fact that no one wanted to use nuclear bombs? The ‘sea level’ on both sides of the canal are significantly different, esp was tides go in and out. You could not pass through the area during such times, making transit a function of lunar activity.

Adding a new Subway line from Long Island to Grand Central Station is going to cost around $8 Billion. Even with Cheap labor, I don’t see any method of widening the existing Canal for anywhere near $1 Billion. I wonder what the $1 Billion is earmarked for. I would guess Lock and pump improvements, not a widening.


There are 2 different things going on; there is an upgrade of current systems; and there is a study for adding a SECOND system. The $1billion would be much too little for building a new lock, let alone a new canal

I understand there are ecological concerns – a sea-level canal would make it possible for Pacific marine life to invade Atlantic habitat and vice-versa.

Not a major concern of those who constructed the first, nor the group currently in charge of the canal. It isn’t economically (or functionally) feasible

RE: the Lake Nicaragua idea: I’d assume 9correct me) that the path from the carribean side to Lake Nicaragua would involve a lock at the intrance to keep things shut at low tide-but I don’t know the tidal range in the Gulf of Mexico-I don’t think its too high. The fact that LN is a large freshwater lake 9it does have the only freshwater sharks in the world) would deter those nasty pacific sea Snakes from getting into the Carribean.
Anyway, a lock at the Pacific end would also aloow transit during low and high (Pacific) tides. Even without using nuclear explosives, it would probably be cheaper to build thge LN canal-I don’t see how you would enlarge the galliard cut without removing a mountain or so.

Well, the Nicaraguans are still interested in the idea, and think they could build a canal for $25 billion (which is 25 times the government’s annual budget, so they’re seeking foreign investors). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicaragua_Canal#After_the_Panama_Canal