Drought Threatens Panama Canal Operations


Recent weather trends are threatening the operations of the major global-shipping route through the Panama Canal.

Meteorologists blame the drought on the weather phenomenon known as El Niño. El Niño is a period of warmer than average waters in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Central and South America. Last year’s rainy season was Panama’s driest in 100 years. The result is a low-level of water in the canal’s reservoirs.

A shortage of water in the two lakes that supply the Panama Canal with water threatens the canal’s ability to function. The canal consists of a series of eight locks between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Between the oceans is an 8-inch difference in sea-level, as well as an 85-foot rise in between. With 26 million gallons of water required per ship passage, about 1 billion gallons of water pass through the canal each day.

Jorge Luis Quintano, head of the Panama Canal Authority, has stated that if current drought conditions persist, the canal may have to limit ship passages by the end of 2014 or early 2015.

No good news on the horizon either. Chris Orr, meteorologist and editor for Weather Trader, says that “when the rain does start to fall, it may come too late to prevent some shipping restrictions from falling into place late this year or early next year. Even with copious amounts, it may take until November 2015 to completely fill lakes Gatun and Alajuela.”

Furthermore, the latest from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts more extreme weather such as severe dry seasons and big storms in the region.

If passages through the Panama Canal were suspended, major economic ripple-effects would be felt not only in Panama, but throughout the world. The canal handles about 5% of global shipping. The longer alternative route around the southern tip of South America would have to be used, driving up transportation costs and consumer prices of the shipped goods.


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