News / Americas

Panama Canal Undergoes Multi-Billion-Dollar Expansion

Multimedia

Zulima Palacio

Since the Panama Canal opened a passageway between the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans nearly a century ago, nearly one million ships have sailed through.  Building the channel across the Isthmus of Panama began in 1882, but disease, geography and politics delayed its completion until 1914.  More than 27,000 workers lost their lives during construction.  Now, what's been called "the greatest engineering feat in the world" is being expanded, so today's larger ships can take advantage of this vital link in global maritime trade.

Colossal is the best word to describe the dimension of the expansion works here.  With an investment of $5.5 billion, the Panama Canal will soon have a third channel for the transit of much larger ships.  Jorge Luis Quijano, the canal's executive vice president of engineering, says the canal is operating at full capacity and needs to expand.

"This new canal actually is offering a larger vessel that it can handle with deeper draft with a longer and wider vessel," noted Quijano.

THE CANAL IN FIGURES

  • The Panama Canal serves more than 80 countries, and is a throughway for 144 international maritime routes.
  • The five countries sending the most cargo through the canal: the United States, China, Japan, Chile and South Korea.
  • Since its opening in August 1914, nearly one million vessels have transited the waterway.
  • The new Panama Canal locks will be 427 meters long and 55 meters wide, the size of four football fields.
  • A ship takes about 8 hours to travel the full length of the Panama Canal.
  • On August 14, 1928, Richard Halliburton paid a 36-cent toll to swim the Canal. It took him 10 days to complete his journey.

WHY DOES THE PANAMA CANAL USE LOCKS?

  • In order for ships to cross the 80-kilometer-wide Isthmus of Panama, they must pass through the fresh waters of Lake Gatun, which sits at 26 meters above sea level. To get there, ships first progress through a set of steel locks that raise them, in stages, from sea level up to Lake Gatun. On the other side of the lake, they pass through more locks that lower them back to sea level.

ABOUT THE EXCAVATIONS

  • According to the Panama Canal Authority, the material excavated during its initial construction would have been enought to build 63 pyramids similar in size to those at Giza, Egypt.

ARCHEOLOGICAL FINDINGS

  • The massive excavations for the canal expansion have resulted in a series of paleontological and archeological finds, which have kept Smithsonian scientists busy. The discoveries, mostly on the Atlantic side, include fossils and pre-Columbian artifacts. Scientists say some of the fossil remains could change prevailing theories about the geologic evolution of the Isthmus of Panama.

ENVIRONMENT

  • Panama's National Environmental Authority requires that for each hectare of forest affected by the Canal expansion project, two hectares be reforested. Displaced wildlife has been rescued and relocated. And the new lock systems will allow canal operators to recycle 60 percent more of the canal's fresh lakewater than is possible with today's locks.

Here at the Gatun, locks on the Atlantic side of the original Panama Canal, ships pass just centimeters away from the concrete walls on both sides. These vessels cannot be more than 32 meters wide, and ride only 12 meters deep in the water.

The new locks - now being built parallel to the old ones - will handle ships up to 49 meters wide with drafts of more than 15 meters.

This ship passing through the Gatun Locks is heading south, into Lake Gatun and on to the Pacific Ocean.  Parallel to it is the excavation for the new, larger canal. 

"This is the existing canal that is composed of two sets of locks and this is the third set of locks, it's a third line for the ships to go by," explained Oscar Soto, the chief engineer for the Atlantic region.

At Lake Gatun - created 100 years ago to supply water for the canal - Captain Ubaldo Pimentel has been running a passenger boat for decades.  He says engineers are using dredging ships and dynamite to create deeper, wider passageways to the new Gatun locks.

"The mountain used to get all the way to the red buoy," Pimentel noted.  "They took all that material and pushed it back to widen the lake."  

For nearly a century, many cargo ships were designed specifically to fit the Panama locks.  In the last few decades, however, larger vessels, known as post-Panamax ships, have been forced to carry their cargo around South America.  When it's completed, in 2014, the new 80-kilometer-long channel will admit some of those larger ships, but as engineering vice president Jorge Luis Quijano explains, not the largest.

"No, no quite. We had to look at the optimal size of vessel that would make the return on the investment, of a high value to us. So we chose what size of vessels that could actually pay for this project," Quijano explained.

Still, the project means officials will be able to double the amount of cargo the canal can handle.

"The present canal has a total capacity of about 340 million tons a year that it can handle, that's the maximum capacity," Quijano noted.  "With the expansion we expect to double that, over 600 million tons that we can handle in a year."

That's important, because ships using the canal pay by weight.  Canal authorities expect more than half of the multi-billion-dollar expansion costs to be paid by today's canal traffic, with the larger ships using the new channel paying for the rest.  

The massive canal expansion is being done by several international contractors, but 90 percent of their work force is Panamanian.

Working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, the project is moving ahead on schedule, to open in 2014, coinciding with the 100th anniversary of the Panama Canal.  The celebration, they say, will be colossal.

You May Like

Lesotho Faces New Round of Violence, Political Crisis

Brutal killing of military officer has sent former leaders back into S. Africa where they're watching anxiously as regional officials head in to try to restore peace More

Video US Diplomat Expects Adoption of Bosnian Massacre Anniversary Resolution

Samantha Power says there's broad consensus about killings in Bosnia's war, but Russia calls resolution 'divisive,' backs UN countermeasure More

UN Report Exposes Widespread Boko Haram Atrocities

Damning report graphically details pattern of vicious, widespread atrocities committed by Islamist militants More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountaini
X
July 02, 2015 4:10 AM
Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountain

Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Xenophobia Victims in South Africa Flee Violence, Then Return

Many Malawians fled South Africa early this year after xenophobic attacks on African immigrants. But many quickly found life was no better at home and have returned to South Africa – often illegally and without jobs, and facing the tough task of having to start over. Lameck Masina and Anita Powell file from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Family of American Marine Calls for Release From Iranian Prison

As the crowd of journalists covering the Iran talks swells, so too do the opportunities for media coverage.  Hoping to catch the attention of high-level diplomats, the family of American-Iranian marine Amir Hekmati is in Vienna, pleading for his release from an Iranian prison after nearly 4 years.  VOA’s Heather Murdock reports from Vienna.
Video

Video UK Holds Terror Drill as MPs Mull Tunisia Response

After pledging a tough response to last Friday’s terror attack in Tunisia, which came just days before the 10th anniversary of the bomb attacks on London’s transport network, British security services are shifting their focus to overseas counter-terror operations. VOA's Henry Ridgwell has more.
Video

Video Obama on Cuba: This is What Change Looks Like

President Barack Obama says the United States will soon reopen its embassy in Cuba for the first time since 1961, ending a half-century of isolation. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Internet

Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video US Silica Sand Mining Surge Worries Illinois Residents, Businesses

Increased domestic U.S. oil and gas production, thanks to advances known as “fracking,” has created a boom for other industries supporting that extraction. Demand for silica sand, used in fracking, could triple over the next five years. In the Midwest state of Illinois, people living near the mines are worried about how increased silica sand mining will affect their businesses and their health. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh has more in this first of a series of reports.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Texas Defies Same-Sex Marriage Ruling

Texas state officials have criticized the US Supreme Court decision giving same-sex couples the right to marry nationwide. The attorney general of Texas says last week's decision did not overrule constitutional "rights of religious liberty," and therefore officials performing wedding services can refuse to perform them for same-sex couples if it is against their religious beliefs. Zlatica Hoke reports on the controversy.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.
Video

Video Saudi Leaks Expose ‘Checkbook Diplomacy’ In Battle With Iran

Saudi Arabia’s willingness to wield its oil money on the global diplomatic stage appears to have been laid bare, after the website WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of leaked cables from Riyadh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video In Kenya, Police Said to Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

An organization that documents torture and extrajudicial killings says Kenyan police were responsible for 1,252 shooting deaths in five cities, including Nairobi, between 2009 and 2014, representing 67 percent of all gun deaths in the areas reviewed. Gabe Joselow has more from Nairobi.

VOA Blogs

More Americas News

Right to Die: Colombian Man Ends Life with Government Backup

After heated public debate and last-minute legal challenges, 79-year-old becomes first Colombian to die as result of government-sanctioned euthanasia
More

3 Mexican Journalists Assassinated in Week

Rights groups call on Mexican authorities to thoroughly investigate recent murders in Oaxaca, Veracruz and Guanajuato
More

Ecuador Is Prime Example at Heart of Pope's Climate Stance

Pope Francis begins his South America tour this weekend in country that is prime example of tensions between politics, business and environment
More

Experts: US-Cuba Moves Likely to Deepen N Korea’s Isolation

Korea University professor sees US-Cuba normalization as 'quite an ideological eye-opener' for Pyongyang, a longtime Havana ally
More

Pope to Tour 3 South American Countries

Grueling, week-long trip will showcase Francis at his unpredictable best: speaking his native Spanish on his home turf about issues closest to his heart
More

Congress Aims to Keep Bans on Dealing with Cuban Military

Proposed legislation would ban Americans from engaging in any financial transactions with the Cuban military or the Cuban Ministry of the Interior
More