The Expansion of the Panama Canal

The Expansion of the Panama Canal

(Opened June 2016)

A brief background

The Panama Canal will be very familiar to many of our Club Members and of course our website followers. The 48 mile (77 km) waterway 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, an artificial lake created to reduce the amount of excavation work required for the canal, 85 feet (26 metres) above sea level. The current locks are 110 feet (33.5 metres wide. A third wider lane was constructed between September 2007 and May 2016 and is due to open in June 2016

France began work on the canal in 1881 but stopped due to engineering problems and a high worker mortality rate. The United States took over the project in 1904, and opened the canal on August 15, 1914. One of the largest and most difficult engineering projects ever undertaken, the Panama Canal shortcut greatly reduced the time for ships to travel between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, enabling them to avoid the lengthy, hazardous Cape Horn route around the southernmost tip of South America  via the Drake Passage or Strait of Magellan

Increased capacity

Scale comparison of Panamax and New Panamax specifications. [Diagram by Julia Gold and the authors] – Places

The Panama Canal Expansion is the largest project at the Canal since its original construction. The project will create a new lane of traffic along the Canal through the construction of a new set of locks, doubling the waterway’s capacity. The existing locks allow the passage of vessels that can carry up to 5,000 TEUs. After the expansion the Post-Panamax vessels will be able to transit through the Canal, with up to 13,000/14,000 TEUs. The Expansion will double the Canal’s capacity, having a direct impact on economies of scale and international maritime trade.
The Programme consists of several components:

  • New Locks (Third Set of Locks)
    • Pacific Access Channel
    • Improvement of Navigational Channels (Dredging)
    • Improvements to Water Supply
    The Panama Canal expansion is based on six years of research, which included more than 100 studies on the economic feasibility, market demand, environmental impact and other technical engineering aspects. Works on the Panama Canal Expansion began on September 2007 at a total cost of US$5.2 billion.