Women take selfies in front of a waterfall during the flooding of the Panama Canal Expansion project. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso

The soon-to-open expanded canal will—finally—accommodate the world’s gigantic freight ships. For now.

After decades of international controversy, lost fortunes, and the loss of thousands laborers’ lives, the Panama Canal opened in 1914, with two massive locks sized to accommodate the freight ships of the day. The debut of the “Big Ditch” marked a new era in the global economy, connecting U.S. Atlantic and Gulf ports to Asia, South America, and beyond.

Yet only a few short years passed before the U.S., which had shepherded the last years of the canal’s construction, decided that the canal was not large enough for the ships the country wanted at its ports. Construction began on a third set of locks in 1939. But as the costs of World War II stacked up, the project was abandoned.

More than a century later, the Canal has entered the final stages of a much-anticipated expansion, which began (this time) in 2007. New, 22-story locks were filled with water last month in preparation for flood testing by the Panama Canal Authority. The locks sit alongside the existing canal, and are designed to accommodate "Post-Panamax" vessels—which hold 5,000 to 8,000 containers, far outstripping the canal’s original size restrictions. Port cities from New York to Seattle are busily preparing for the expanded canal, and the tremendous cargo loads it will enable.

Though the third set isn’t yet complete, the Panama Canal Authority is already eyeing a proposal from China for a fourth set of locks, big enough for the “next generation” of freight shippers that hold up to 18,000 containers. But as container ships grow bigger by the year, so do labor and traffic challenges at ports and canals. Just how much larger can the freight industry get? When the third set of locks opens for business in April 2016, we’ll begin to find out.

An aerial view of the construction site of the Panama Canal Expansion project. (REUTERS/Carlos Jasso)
A steel rolling gate, part of the third set of locks on the Pacific side, is seen at the Panama Canal Expansion Project. (REUTERS/Carlos Jasso)
An engineer carries out an inspection of the new floodgates. (REUTERS/Carlos Jasso)
Workers look on at the start of the flooding of the Panama Canal Expansion project. (REUTERS/Carlos Jasso)
Pipes are pictured as the valves open to start the flooding of the Panama Canal Expansion project. (REUTERS/Carlos Jasso)
A worker navigates as a floodgate test is conducted in the new set of locks of the Panama Canal Expansion Project, on the Pacific side of the Panama Canal. (REUTERS/Carlos Jasso)
An aerial view of a cargo ship in the Panama Canal. (REUTERS/Carlos Jasso)

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Design

    A New Plan to Correct a Historic Mistake in Pittsburgh

    A Bjarke Ingels Group-led plan from 2015 has given way to a more “practical” design for the Lower Hill District. Concerns over true affordable housing remain.

  2. Electricians install solar panels on a roof for Arizona Public Service company in Goodyear, Arizona.
    Environment

    A Bottom-Line Case for the Green New Deal: The Jobs Pay More

    A Brookings report finds that jobs in the clean energy, efficiency, and environmental sectors offer higher salaries than the U.S. average.

  3. A photo of shoppers on University Avenue in East Palo Alto, California, which is flanked by two technology campuses.
    Equity

    An Island of Silicon Valley Affordability Says Yes to More Housing

    East Palo Alto is surrounded by tech riches, but that hasn’t necessarily helped longtime residents, who welcome a state law mandating zoning reform

  4. A crowded room of residents attend a local public forum in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
    Life

    Are Local Politics As Polarized As National? Depends on the Issue.

    Republican or Democrat, even if we battle over national concerns, research finds that in local politics, it seems we can all just get along—most of the time.

  5. A photo of a closed street in St. Louis
    Equity

    What’s Behind the Blocked Streets of St. Louis?

    Thanks to an '80s mania for traffic calming, the St. Louis grid is broken by hundreds of car barriers and cul-de-sacs. Critics say it’s time to get rid of them.