eNews • August 18, 2015
Promoting a Cost-Effective, Reliable and Competitive Transportation System

El Nino forces Panama Canal to restrict draft

The Panama Canal Authority plans a temporary half-foot reduction in maximum drafts of ships passing through the waterway, and said an additional reduction may be ordered if rainfall stays below normal levels.

The draft reductions are due to the El Nino weather pattern, which reduces rainfall in the canal watershed and lowers water levels of the Gatun and Alhajuela lakes, which feed water to the canal’s locks.

Beginning September 8, the maximum draft of ships transiting the canal will be reduced to 39 feet (11.89 meters) from the normal 39.5 feet, a change that would affect 20 percent of ship transits.

The canal authority said an additional decrease could be imposed on September 16 if the rainfall levels stay low. Draft restrictions will be imposed in six-inch (15-centimeter) increments, and the shipping industry will be provided at least five weeks’ notice of any changes, the canal authority said.

Waivers will be granted to vessels already loaded to allowable levels when new draft restrictions are imposed, as long as safety isn’t compromised, the canal authority said. Vessels loaded after a new draft restriction is imposed may be required to trim or offload cargo, the canal authority said.

The last time the Panama Canal had to restrict drafts because of El Nino came in 1998. El Nino is a weather development linked to periodic warming in sea surface temperatures in the tropical Pacific. The weather phenomenon produces varying effects across regions, simultaneously increasing rainfall levels in some areas and producing droughts in others. One of El Nino’s impacts this year has been less tropical storms in the Atlantic.

Rainfall is crucial to Panama Canal operations as the locks that raise and lower ships to sea level use fresh water that is released from upstream reservoirs and flushed into the Atlantic or Pacific oceans. New, larger locks scheduled to open in mid-2016 are designed to conserve water by recycling most of it.

Source: Journal of Commerce

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