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The Panama Canal Gets an Upgrade

A famous shortcut for ships just got bigger.

By Amy Barth

Last weekend, thousands of people gathered in Panama, a country in Central America, to witness a historic moment. They cheered as a massive ship successfully sailed through a famous waterway called the Panama Canal. The Chinese cargo ship (ship that carries goods from one place to another) was about 960 feet long—about two and a half times the length of a football field—and 157 feet wide. It was the first ship of that size ever to pass through the canal—and until recently, it never would have fit!

For nearly a decade, Panama has been working to make its canal bigger to help large ships deliver goods around the world. Now that project is finally complete. On Sunday, the Chinese ship became the first commercial vessel to sail through the expanded canal. “What happiness to begin this day and to receive this ship,” said Juan Carlos Varela, Panama’s president.


The Panama Canal might be the most famous shortcut in the world. A canal is a waterway that is dug across land to allow boats or ships to travel from one body of water to another. The 50-mile-long Panama Canal cuts through Panama and connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The canal, built by the United States, opened in 1914. It gave ships a way to travel between these oceans without having to go all the way around South America. For years, the canal was operated by the U.S. Full control was handed over to Panama in 1999.

The canal operates in two directions. Ships can travel from the Atlantic Ocean (via the Caribbean Sea) to the Pacific Ocean and in the opposite direction. To successfully cross the canal, ships must navigate through different levels of water. The engineers of the Panama Canal designed special structures called locks to help vessels do this. These locks raise and lower the ships by changing the level of the water in the canal at different spots. This prevents ships from scraping the bottom of the canal.


Why was the expansion needed? Ninety percent of the world’s goods—like food, clothes, and electronics—are transported by sea. Shipping companies have been racing to build bigger ships to transport more of these products at once. But over time, the ships became so huge that they couldn’t fit in the Panama Canal. The expanded canal has a new set of locks big enough for massive ships to pass through. “The size [of the new locks] is overwhelming,” says Nick Pansic, the engineer who led the design of the project. The canal’s older locks were also made wider and deeper so they can fit bigger vessels too.

The expansion cost $5.25 billion and faced many challenges along the way. Some experts are concerned that the locks still aren’t big enough. They also worry because Panama is located on the Ring of Fire, an area known to have a lot of earthquakes. Pansic’s team used concrete and 200,000 tons of steel to make the canal strong enough to hold up during big quakes.

Canal officials assure people that the canal is safe and ready for business. “Engineers from many different countries and companies came together to make the canal [expansion] happen,” says Pansic. “It’s very exciting to see it all come together.”

Photo credit Antonio Zugaldia

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