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. photo: A lone tourist in Barcelona, one of several global cities that have seen a massive crash in Airbnb bookings.
    Coronavirus

    Can Airbnb Survive Coronavirus?

    The short-term rental market is reeling from the coronavirus-driven tourism collapse. Can the industry’s dominant player stage a comeback after lockdowns lift?

  2. Illustration: two roommates share a couch with a Covid-19 virus.
    Coronavirus

    For Roommates Under Coronavirus Lockdown, There Are a Lot of New Rules

    Renters in apartments and houses share more than just germs with their roommates: Life under coronavirus lockdown means negotiating new social rules.

  3. A pedestrian wearing a protective face mask walks past a boarded up building in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Tuesday, March 24, 2020. Governors from coast to coast Friday told Americans not to leave home except for dire circumstances and ordered nonessential business to shut their doors.
    Equity

    The Geography of Coronavirus

    What do we know so far about the types of places that are more susceptible to the spread of Covid-19? In the U.S., density is just the beginning of the story.

  4. Equity

    We'll Need To Reopen Our Cities. But Not Without Making Changes First.

    We must prepare for a protracted battle with coronavirus. But there are changes we can make now to prepare locked-down cities for what’s next.

  5. photo: South Korean soldiers attempt to disinfect the sidewalks of Seoul's Gagnam district in response to the spread of COVID-19.
    Coronavirus

    Pandemics Are Also an Urban Planning Problem

    Will COVID-19 change how cities are designed? Michele Acuto of the Connected Cities Lab talks about density, urbanization and pandemic preparation.  

×