Post-Panamax era is coming. In three years, the Panama Canal will double its capacity by creating a new lane of traffic with a new set of locks to allow larger ships to pass. The 5.5 billion dollar construction project is about 50% complete. What does this mean to us on the East Coast? Why is water still the biggest variable in operating the canal?
It means the East Coast ports are digging deep and port politics are heating up. Right now, Post-Panamax ships make up 16 percent of the container fleet, but nearly half of all container fleet capacity. To be honest, I have not been able to keep up with the lawsuits and challenges with deepening our regional ports, however, here is the current Post-Panamax port rundown as of this morning:
- Norfolk, Virginia is post-Panamax ready.
- New York will be ready by the year 2015.
- Baltimore will be ready by the end of the year.
- Miami will be ready by 2015, It needs 2 billion dollars more worth of dredging and new cranes.
- Savannah has a deepening project tied down with lawsuits (See my blog post about the speece cone)
- Charleston, SC Port. Still in study mode but the legislature has committed $300 million to dredging
A canal without water is like a bank without any money. Water is its currency. Depth and width are its measures. Did you know it takes around 52 Million Gallons of fresh water for one ship to get through the canal as a result of water loss through the locks?
It’s easy for this civil engineer to be enamored by the amount of dredging, concrete, size of the locks, but the real rock stars of the canal are the two lakes which control the fresh water and harness a water cycle that provides around 101 inches of precipitation. Even with that amount of water, dependable water is not guaranteed.
In the late 1990s, they had the worst drought of record that resulted in reduced shipping capacity and some ships even having to unload part of their cargo to keep from running aground. This is one of the main reasons why saving water for the new design took a high priority. Each lock chamber in the Panama Canal’s new set of locks is connected to a group of three water-saving basins. The basins will save up to 60% of the water used in each transit; however, salt water intrusiton into the lakes is still a concern.
The graph below shows a water balance for the Panama Canal watershed. Basically, it shows where that 101 inches of precipitation is used in the basin. Which piece of the pie do you think will increase and which do you think will decrease?
It’s amazing that this is the first major upgrade in the canal since it was built a hundred years ago. Will there be another upgrade after this one? Some say the Northwest Passage could be ice-free for up to 9 months by the year 2030. Instead of using the Panama Canal, carriers could potentially bring cargo from Asia directly to the US East Coast.
One thing is for certain, however, water will always be the true master.
Interested more in the Canal Project? Here are some good resources I found.
- Canal de Panamá’s photostream (Great Construction Pictures)
- Follow C.J. Schexnayder @thirdlane where he tweets exclusively about the project
- MWH has a good video overview more for engineers where they go through more of the details of the design
- MWH even has a free ibook that you can download to learn more about the project.
- Official Webcams