The Panama Canal will soon implement a new travel restriction on ships due to an El Nino-related drought. The weather phenomenon is associated with higher than average temperatures leading, in part, to the current worldwide lack of rain. It currently requires 52 million gallons of water per ship to make the trip across the canal, which is supplied from the adjacent Gatun Lake. The new measures limiting the size of the ships that can navigate the passage are intended to conserve that water supply and illustrate the far reaching effects global climate disruptions can have.
The new travel restrictions are planned to begin on September 8th and may affect up to 20% of the volume of ships that use the canal. An average of 34 ships per day pass through the 100 year old canal, which is scheduled to have a new series of locks in 2016. Officials hope to double the canal’s capacity with the new system as well as allow larger ships. The completion of the project will allow the passage of so-called “post-Panamax” ships capable of carrying three times the cargo of current ships. Costly upgrades have also been made to U.S. ports on the east coast to accommodate the larger ships.
Because the El Nino cycle can produce flash floods as well as droughts, the canal may be under threat not only from a reduced water supply, but also flooding of its infrastructure. The delays to ships mean higher prices for consumer goods shipped using the passage, a large portion of which are from China and destined for the U.S. Manager of the canal authority’s water resource division, Jorge Espinosa, is more worried about the effects of water shortages, than he is from floods, however.
Yet even more rare floods can have expensive consequences for shippers as the most recent shutdown of the canal was due to a sudden rainstorm. In 2010 the canal had to be closed for nearly a day when a deluge of rain threatened to swamp the lock system, only the third time the canal had been closed over its entire history. The potential damage to the canal by a sufficiently large downpour could reach into the billions of dollars, according to the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute of Panama City.
The vulnerability of seemingly unconnected industries to global weather events highlights the wide ranging impact of weather on society. As we continue to pump the planet full of greenhouse gases, weather is becoming more extreme and the effects are being felt in the most unlikely of places.