Changing climate casts a shadow over the future of the Panama Canal – and global trade

Changing climate casts a shadow over the future of the Panama Canal – and global trade

From his office perched on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, Steven Paton looks over the entrance to the Panama Canal; the high rises of the country’s capital resting upon the horizon behind him, and an increasingly long queue of tankers lining up in the bay.

For 33 years his job with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute monitoring the region’s climate has given him a front-row seat to how the weather’s familiar patterns have changed, upending axioms of old and calling into question the future viability of one of the most important trade routes in the world.

Over the last year, as the region has suffered through what Paton calls a “rainfall deficit”, passage through the Panama Canal has slowed and the queue of tankers waiting in the bay to pass through it has grown. Now, with warnings that the situation is set to get much worse, experts say that the effects of a restricted Panama Canal could be felt all over the world.

Connecting the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, the canal revolutionised global shipping when it opened in 1914, eliminating the need to travel around the dangerous southern tip of South America, shortening the trip by more than 13,000km.

In 2022, more than 14,000 ships traversed the canal, transporting fuel, grain, minerals and goods from the factories of east Asia to the consumers of New York and beyond. More than 40% of consumer goods traded between north-east Asia and the US east coast are transported through the canal.

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