About this Article
Written by: Halley Stieber
Written on: March 1st, 2005
Tags: civil engineering, transportation
Thumbnail by: Stan Shebs/Wikimedia Commons
About the Author
In March 2002, Halley Stieber was a senior majoring in civil engineering with a construction emphasis. She is an active member of the American Society of Civil Engineers.
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Volume II Issue I > The Future of the Panama Canal
This article explores the future of the Panama Canal as part of the global transportation system. Beginning with a brief overview of how vessels pass through the canal this article outlines the canal's importance to the global economy. It identifies three problems the canal is faced with regarding efficient traffic flow: the transfer of authority, the increasing shipping industry and the environmental impact. The article concludes with an explanation of the canal's renovations. Current and future renovations will be able to accommodate for traffic flow well into the future.


On December 31, 1999, the United States handed the Republic of Panama control of the Panama Canal. While much controversy surrounded Panama's ability to provide efficient service, business on the canal has been flowing smoothly. However, the switch in power was only the first of many hurdles the canal has faced and will be facing in years to come. The amount of traffic through the canal is increasing by 5% to 8% every year [1]; traffic increase is occurring in volume as well as in size. How long can this almost century-old engineering marvel serve the needs of the shipping world? With physical and technological improvements, the Panama Canal can expand to provide for the shipping community in the future.

Traveling Through the Canal

Stan Shebs/Wikimedia Commons
Figure 1: Part of the Gatun Locks of the Panama Canal.
A vessel approaching the canal from the Atlantic Ocean encounters the Gatun Locks (commonly referred to as water elevators) first. The Gatun Locks raise the ship 26 meters above sea level to Gatun Lake. (see Fig. 1) In addition, train tracks run parallel to the locks. The locomotives travel along the vessel in order to help stabilize it as it passes through the locks. Next, the vessels travel through Gatun Lake while being pulled by a tugboat. The vessel then reaches the Pedro Miguel Locks where it is lowered into Miraflores Lake. After traveling the length of Miraflores Lake, the vessel is lowered back into the Pacific Ocean by the Miraflores Locks. The total travel time through the Panama Canals is approximately 24 hours.

Business Through the Canal

According to the U.S. Marine Transportation 1998 report, "Marine transportation is an integral component of the U.S. transportation system and essential to the nation's economy." The United States ships over 1 billion long tons of cargo through the Panama Canal each year, making the Panama Canal an indespensible aspect of the nation's economy. Servicing over 50 countries on all 7 continents, the Panama Canal is vital to the transportation of natural resources and manufactured goods. This can be seen through the following facts:
  • 141 trade routes converge at the Panama Canal.
  • It serviced an average of 37.8 vessels a day in 2000.
  • The busiest of the trade routes, the East Coast of the United States to Asia, is 3,000 miles shorter than the alternative all-water route around the Southern tip of South America.
  • Nearly 195 million long tons of cargo were transported in 2000.
  • Total revenues for 1999 were nearly $750 million.