A glance at the map begins to give you an idea of the extraordinary engineering feat accomplished with the construction of the Panama Canal. Damming the Chagres River created what was in 1913 the world’s largest man-made lake. Gatun Lake sees Panama and its Canal through the dry season between January and March. The surrounding rain forests act as sponges and help conserve water; however, deforestation has increased the nation’s challenge to maintain enough water to service the Canal.
The Panama Canal locks project commenced at Gatun in August of 1909. The Gatun Locks are nestled in a hillside and raise ships 85 feet above sea level. Depending on whether a vessel is traveling up or down, an individual lock chamber fills with or empties 27 million gallons of water in the process of moving a ship from one lock to the next.
Each lock measures 110 feet wide by 1050 feet long. Minus a buffering range, these dimensions dictate the size of ships that may pass through the Canal. Vessels pay around $28 thousand for passage through the Panama canal, but prices vary depending on how much cargo is being transported (or how much water is displaced).
Vessels move through the canal on their own power, but several locomotives called “mules” guide the boats keeping them centered and away from the walls of the locks.
Mules are named for the actual animals that used to guide barges along canals. Mule drivers operate winches used to help stabilize a ship’s passage. Mitsubishi builds the mules at a cost of around $2 million each.
Right now the Canal’s biggest competitor is transportation through the U.S. via ship, rail, truck and ship. The Northwest Passage which extends around West and North Alaska through the Canadian Archipelago is a minor competitor. The Arctic ice pack used to limit shipping throughout most of the year. However, since climate change has decreased year round ice, the passage is more accessible. Panama’s Canal Expansion Project will add two sets of locks, 180 feet wide by 1,400 feet long, allowing larger vessels to pass through the nation. The country expects the project will be completed in 2014.