The world is witnessing a nautical disaster of epic proportions as water levels in the Panama Canal continue to drop, causing traffic congestion that is hurting global trade and sending shockwaves through the maritime sector.
The Panama Canal has been a vital artery for international trade for more than a century, providing a shortcut for ships traveling between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. However, the region’s chronic drought, exacerbated by climate change, has pushed water levels in the canal to record lows, making travel increasingly dangerous.
Hundreds of ships are stuck in the Panama Canal, where officials have restricted transit through one of the world’s most important trade routes due to low water levels caused by El Niño and climate change.
The water level in the Panama Canal plummets
The traffic bottleneck bodes ill for a global economy plagued by supply chain problems, especially for American businesses. The canal that connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans carries approximately 40% of US container traffic.
The congestion is increasing shipping costs and causing delays in the delivery of goods just as importers prepare for the holiday season.
“We have all the conditions we need to replicate what we had in 2015-16,” said Steven Paton, director of the environmental monitoring program at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. In several places in Central America, it was one of the driest seasons on record.
For now, the number of boat permits has been limited.
“There will be more restrictions” on ships passing through the canal next spring, when it is the driest of the year, he said. To preserve water, the canal authorities limit the number of ships authorized to transit the canal daily to 32, compared to an average of 36 at regular intervals.
They have also put weight limits on ships. Each ship requires around 50 million gallons of water to pass through the locks. Only a part is recycled.
Normally, up to 90 ships wait to enter the canal; there were over 120 this week. Up to 160 ships were idle at the beginning of this month.
According to Abe Eshkenazi, executive director of the Chicago-based Association for Supply Chain Management, congestion contributes to global bottlenecks caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the COVID-19 outbreak.
“We are seeing another disturbance adding to a system that is already under stress,” he explained. Panama is commonly considered one of the wettest countries in the world, with a rainy season that lasts from May to the end of December.
There hasn’t been a drought like this in 143 years.
However, the canal region is experiencing one of its driest years since records began 143 years ago, according to Paton.
This summer, high-pressure heat domes have been centered across much of the Caribbean and Central America, eliminating chances for rain and causing extreme temperatures. The drought is also affecting Mexico and other countries in the region.
The hot and dry circumstances cause higher water temperatures, more evaporation and less replenishment of the lakes that feed the Panama Canal from the tropical forests of origin.
This means that there will be even less water available in the lakes and reduced water levels in the canal.
A severe and developing El Niño, warming waters in the equatorial Pacific Ocean, and human-caused climate change will likely offset Panama’s recent dry spell.
While El Niño acts as a multiplier, the drought began early in the year, with about 10 to 25 percent of typical rainfall in the area from February to April.
“The main impacts of climate change in Panama are related to an increase in the number, intensity and variability of extreme precipitation events, severe droughts and high temperatures,” the United Nations’ Piedad Martín said earlier this year when the Panamanian government launched a climate resilience program.
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