'Things could get worse': Ships are backed up in the Panama Canal thanks to El Niño and climate change

'Things could get worse': Ships are backed up in the Panama Canal thanks to El Niño and climate change
The Panama Canal in 2017 (Creative Commons)

The COVID-19 pandemic not only brought a staggering death toll — over 6.8 million worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore — but also, created a variety of economic problems, from inflation to travel restrictions to supply-chain issues. Those supply problems have been felt at the Panama Canal, which, according to the Washington Post, is also coping with stalled ships and traffic jams.

The Panama Canal is an artificial waterway that took over 30 years to complete. Construction began in 1881, and when the Canal finally opened in 1914, it offered ships a link between the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. Panama took over the Canal in 1999 after many years of U.S. control.

The Canal has been in operation for 109 years, and according to the Washington Post's Mary Beth Sheridan, it is facing challenging times in 2023.

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"Scores of ships are backing up at the Panama Canal, where low water levels linked to El Niño and climate change have led authorities to restrict travel through one of the world's most important trade arteries," Sheridan explains in a report published on August 24. "The traffic jam is a grim sign for a global economy that has been whipsawed by supply-chain challenges — and for American businesses in particular. Around 40 percent of U.S. container traffic moves through the Canal that connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans."

Sheridan adds, "The congestion is driving up shipping prices and causing delays in transporting merchandise just as importers are starting to gear up for the Christmas season. And things could get worse."

The Washington Post reporter notes that because of the need to "conservative water," Canal authorities are "limiting the number of ships allowed to make the crossing to 32 per day" and have "imposed weight restrictions on the vessels."

Association for Supply Chain Management CEO Abe Eshkenazi cites the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia's invasion of Ukraine as two causes of congestion at the Canal, telling the Post, "We're seeing just another disruption on top of an already stressed system…. We knew climate change was going to have an impact. We should not be surprised. Now, the question is, what do we do about it?"

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