Future disruption to Panama Canal will depend on El Nino intensity – expert

Jonathan Lopez


SANTIAGO (ICIS)–Despite arrangements put in place to make the Panama Canal fit for a changing climate, future disruption at the Americas key shipping route will depend on a variable no-one can predict: the intensity of future El Niño weather phenomenon, according to an expert at maritime services provider CB Fenton on Tuesday.

Gabriel Mariscal, business manager at the Panama-headquartered company, added that the climate change-related challenges for the Panama Canal have increased on the back of the new locks inaugurated in 2016 – the so-called NeoPanamax locks – which require more water than the old locks, called Panamax.

Equally, more water will also be needed to cater for the demographic needs of an ever-growing Panama City, already a metropolis of 2 million people.

El Niño is a climate phenomenon that emerges from variations in winds and sea surface temperatures over the tropical Pacific ocean, warming the waters, and disproportionally hitting tropical and subtropical countries on west Latin America.

The El Niño which has just finished has been the hardest in history, with large-scale disruption in the Panama Canal due to the drought as well as putting against the ropes economies in countries such as Peru, where GDP fell in 2023 on the back of the weather phenomenon.

Mariscal was speaking at an event about logistics organized by the Latin American Petrochemical and Chemical Association (APLA).

The Panama Canal inaugurated with great fanfare its new locks in June 2016. The NeoPanamax locks are 427 meters (1,400 feet) long by 55 meters wide and 18.3 meters deep. NeoPanamax is used to designate ships that exceed the maximum size (Panamax) of the Miraflores, Pedro Miguel and Gatun locks first built.

Meanwhile, Mariscal said the strongest El Niño phenomenon in the last 50 years occurred in 1982-1983, 1997-1998, and 2015-2016, but points to one big difference to now: the population in Panama City is already grown to 2 million people, around half of the country’s population.

“Future disruption will really depend on the intensity of the El Niño event. El Niño has always existed, but the challenge now is that you have a Panama Canal that consumes much more water than before, even with the NeoPanamax locks reusing water,” said Mariscal.

“So, adding up population growth and new locks using more water, consumption is now much larger. In 2023, that was a challenge for the Canal: they somehow expected disruption with this El Niño, but they didn’t expect it to come so soon [the last El Niño took place in 2018-2019, but it was not as severe].”

Mariscal works almost daily with the Panama Canal. He said he is glad to see the Authority has a meteorology and hydrology department which monitors climate issues closely and daily.

For instance, he mentions that department was one of the first in the world to detect the end of the El Niño just passed, by detecting colder waters in Peru and Ecuador’s shores.

“That allows them to make prompt decisions. Considering how important the Panama Canal is for the country’s economy, they know they cannot be laggards: they need to be ahead of the game. You can see this in other aspects in the country as well: in Panama City you see a lot of green spaces, for example,” said Mariscal.

“This is not just by chance and to embellish the city: it is because we really need that green, so that it continues to rain where it has to rain to keep up water levels at the Canal where they must be.  The Panama Canal is leader in climate change-related disruption in the country.”

Mariscal estimates that the Panama Canal, as well as the maritime-related services associated to it generate around 65% of Panama’s wealth, with tourism and banking services practically making up for the rest.

The APLA Logistica event runs in Santiago on 11-12 June.

Interview article by Jonathan Lopez

Recasts to update spelling of El Nino to El Niño throughout


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