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Panama Canal Transits Limited by Climate Change

The Panama Canal Authority (PCA) is further reducing the maximum number of ships that can transit the waterway each day from 32 to 31. The previous limit of 32 ships per day was only put in place of August of this year, which was a decrease from the traditional average of 36 to 38 ships daily.

Starting November 1, nine ships per day will be allowed to use the new, bigger NeoPanamax locks and 22 per day will be handled through the older Panamax locks. Vessels transiting the Panamax lokcs will also face a tighter maximum draft restriction of 13.4112m (44 feet), down from the standard max of 15.24m (50 feet).

These restrictions to one of the world’s main maritime trade routes are a result of severe the drought conditions in the region and are expected to be exacerbated by the return of the El Niño weather phenomenon this year, which led to the PCA strengthening their water conserving measures.

Each ship transiting the canal requires approximately 200 million litres of freshwater to move it through the system of locks. The water comes from Gatun Lake, an artificial freshwater lake that is supplied through a watershed of rivers and brooks.

But after an unusually dry year, the level of water in the lake is currently estimated at 80 feet, down from its average of 87 feet for this time of year. This watershed also supplies freshwater to Panama City, home to about half the country’s 4 million people.

The latest restrictions are expected to be in place for at least the next 10 months and will affect shipping schedules and capacity utilization. Container services and cruise ships are impacted differently due the booking system where as bulk ships will face greater disruptions due to short notice and the need to queue.