The Panama Canal: A Wonder Of The Modern World?

The Panama Canal, which spans across Central America to connect the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, has been described as one of the Seven Wonders Of The Modern World. It is 82km (52 miles) long, and opened in 1914 to assist with quicker maritime trading routes.

Previously, ships would have to make a long and hazardous journey around the Cape Horn of South America to cross between the two oceans. Although it is not the longest ship canal in the world, the Panama Canal is considered one the world’s most complex feats of engineering, owing to the challenging terrain of the area.

Although the idea to build a canal through the Isthmus of Panama was first recorded in 1534, and several construction plans were formed since, the difficult conditions meant that nothing was successfully pursued for some centuries to come.

The French made a prolonged attempt at construction between 1881 and 1899, but the scheme was abandoned amid many setbacks, and the investors went bankrupt. The workforce were totally unprepared for the hostile jungle conditions, where they suffered venomous snake and spider bites, and tropical diseases ran rampant.

Workers died at a rate of 200 per month, and the true extent of the death rates from malaria and yellow fever were disguised in order not to deter new workers coming to the area. It is thought that about 22,000 men were lost by the time the project was abandoned, either through disease or accidents.

Among many other problems, they attempted to build the canal at sea level, which meant that it was flooded during the rainy season, and efforts to cut through the mountainside resulted in landslips. Finally, a new plan was formed by the Americans, which involved building a series of locks to lift the ships above sea level.

At each end, ships are lifted or lowered 85ft above sea level by the system of locks, and cross an artificial lake, and a series of man made channels. The building of the canal was resumed in 1904, and finished in 1914, at a cost of about $400m.

The Americans also developed antimalarial vaccines to control the spread of disease, although about 5,000 workers died during the second attempt. The conditions remained highly dangerous, with heatwaves, swamps, and mosquitos to contend with.

About 15,000 ships now use the Panama Canal every year, which equates to about 340 million tonnes of shipping.  The canal is maintained by the Panama Canal authority, who charge a toll for the passage of each vessel, which is determined by its size, type, and the amount of cargo it is carrying. It can run into hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The canal was expanded in 2016 to increase its capacity for larger cargo vessels, which previously were unable to pass through the lock system. This involved building a third shipping lane, which can carry ships loaded with 14,000 20-ft shipping containers. However, the very biggest ships which carry 18,000 containers still cannot pass through the canal.

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