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Panama Canal vs. Suez Canal – How Do They Compare?

Numerous crucial shipping routes run between land masses in terms of global shipping. But the Suez Canal and the Panama Canal are two outstanding artificial canals that avoid ships to go around entire continents.

As any marine shipping agency would confirm, both have played and still play essential roles in the global economy. It was never more evident than when the Ever Given ship was stuck in the Canal’s passage in 2021, shutting the Suez Canal for a week, causing the delays of over 150 ships and affecting the transportation of 12% of the world’s products.

This circumstance compelled some businesses to consider using the ancient route around the Cape of Good Hope. It is a considerably longer journey but not nearly as lengthy as the far more southerly and colder trip around Cape Horn ships used to face before the Panama Canal came.

In an attempt to prevent a recurrence of the Ever Given circumstance, the management has taken the necessary initiatives to broaden and deepen the Suez Canal’s size. There are also plans to construct a second canal beside the current one, as it will significantly increase the capacity. Below are comprehensive details to enlighten you on the specific attributes concerning Panama Canal vs. Suez Canal.

Panama or Suez, Which Canal Was Built First?

The original Suez Canal, which connects the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea, was inaugurated over 150 years ago. Dredging for the Canal took over ten years and wasn’t navigable until 1869. The 101-mile Egyptian river helped ships avoid the long voyage around Africa’s southern coast.

Ten years later, the French started building the Panama Canal on the other side of the globe. But they halted the construction of the Canal due to illness and engineering issues. Fortunately, the United States picked up the canal work in 1904 and officially opened it in 1914.

Panama Canal vs. Suez Canal, Which Is Busier?

Compared to the Panama route, which typically serves the east coast of North and South America, the Suez route serves some of the most densely populated areas and handles significantly more traffic.

Ocean carriers have taken advantage of this fact as containerships have increased exponentially over the past five years because the Suez is much broader and deeper than the Panama Canal and can handle ships with a far bigger capacity.

Suez Canal Aircraft Carrier

Which Is Longer Between The Suez and Panama Canals?

The Panama Canal is nearly twice as long as the Suez Canal.

Egypt is home to the Suez Canal, which joins the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. It enables water transit between Europe and Asia, saving them time and distance from having to travel a long path. The channel is 101 miles long.

The Panama Canal traverses the Panama Isthmus and connects the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. It is 51 miles long from shore to shore, and it takes roughly 10 hours for ships to travel from one side to the other.

In order to facilitate two-way traffic, the Suez canal’s authority revealed its plan to deepen the Canal and build an additional 45-mile parallel lane in August 2014. The Canal used to only allow one-way convoys, which caused delays for ships transiting the channel. The expansion project reduced the transit time from eighteen to eleven hours.

As long as mega-vessels are introduced on carrier service strings, both the Suez Canal and the Panama Canal will probably continue conducting expansion initiatives. The introduction of these extremely big mega-ships will not only require the canals to expand, but it will also have a massive impact on global infrastructure and terminal berthing.

Panama Canal Ship Lock

Why Are There Locks On The Panama Canal But Not On The Suez Canal?

The topography of Egypt, where the Canal is built, is fairly leveled as there are no mountains or raised grounds; therefore, it was possible to drill down far enough for the Suez Canal to maintain its entire length at sea level. The lack of any drastic fall or rise in the elevation of the Suez Canal’s terrain means there is no need for locks to lift the ships above sea level.

On the other hand, it was not possible to make the entire Panama Canal be at sea level on both sides because of the area’s landscape which has plenty of mountains and hills. Additionally, the freshness of the water that supplies the Canal — mainly from Gatun and Alajuela lakes — determines the draft along its channel. Since the current in the navigational channel is affected by variations in rainfall patterns, it is crucial to maintain ideal water levels in the Gatun and Alajuela Lakes.

Therefore, the Panama Canal needs locks to raise ships to a height that allows them to traverse the Continental Divide. The ships pass the artificial Gatun Lake at an altitude of around 80 feet, after which they are lowered to continue traveling downward on the opposite side. Six lock chambers—three on the Pacific and three on the Atlantic sides—serve as elevators.

Geographical Impact of the Panama and Suez Canals

Global trade was significantly impacted by the building of the Suez and Panama canals, primarily due to two considerations. The first and most obvious one relates to shorter travel times between different parts of the planet. The second has to do with the development of the steamship at about the same time, which took more direct routes at a faster and more reliable speed, adding to the advantages of shorter journey times.

Together with the Panama Canal, the Suez Canal was one of the most critical nautical “shortcuts” ever constructed when it opened in 1869. By avoiding a detour around the Cape of Good Hope, it cut the distance from Asia to Europe by nearly 6,000 kilometers, ushering in a new era of European power in Pacific Asia.

The Middle Eastern oil traffic and the Pacific Asian commercial commerce are the critical reasons for the Suez Canal’s continued strategic importance. The Suez Canal significantly impacts travel from the Persian Gulf to the Northern European range since it reduces a 21,000 km (24 days) long route through Africa to a 12,000 km (14 days) long journey. Consequently, depending on the ship’s speed, the Suez Canal can reduce shipping time by 7 to 10 days.

The Suez Canal and the Panama Canal significantly cut the length and price of maritime shipping. For instance, the Suez Canal reduced travel time by 32% and 41%, respectively, between London and Shanghai and Rotterdam and Mumbai (Bombay during the colonial era of India).

Improvements in the Panama Canal were even more striking, with a 60% reduction in travel time on the crucial New York–Los Angeles route. As a result, major commercial hubs could be served more quickly, and the ships could be employed more efficiently (more trips per year).

Climate

Egypt is an arid country that experiences desert-like climatic conditions. Therefore, it is common for strong winds and sandstorms to occasionally occur in the Suez Canal, making it difficult for ships to have a clear vision of the area when it happens.

In contrast to the Suez, Panama experiences tropical climatic conditions. Fog and ferocious downpours are the worst weather conditions the Canal encounters. If the two situations are severe, the pilots and ground operations staff usually slow down the ships in motion or halt the crossing to wait for more favorable weather conditions.

Panama Canal Tugboat

Crossing Process for The Panama and Suez Canals

In the Suez Canal, the pilot only advises the ship’s captain throughout the journey, but the pilot assumes complete control of the vessel while in the Panama Canal. The pilot hands the ship to the captain when the passage journey is complete.

The Panama Canal has a fleet of 32 tugboats, while the Suez Canal statistics state that they have 31 tugboats. Tugboats aid ships as they travel through the canals by providing them with stability and regulating their pace.

Electric locomotives known as mulas (mules, named after the animals traditionally used to pull barges) are highly useful in Panama Canal to direct ships through the lock chambers. These mules are employed for braking and side-to-side control of the vessels. Since the Suez Canal does not have locks, it does not need these electric mules.

Last Thoughts

In conclusion, both canals significantly impact modern history and the world economy. Although they were difficult to build and cost thousands of lives, they greatly improved the lives of countless sailors. These canals shortened worldwide shipping routes and will continue to impact maritime traffic for many years.

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