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Emissions and Ecological Impacts of Panama Canal Expansion and Nicaragua Canal Construction


The Panama Canal Authority has recently invested nearly $6 billion to make infrastructure improvements to the Panama Canal. These improvements, which were completed in June 2016, include deepening and widening critical segments of the canal and constructing two new sets of lock chambers to accommodate larger vessels. There are also draft plans for the development of another set of Panama Canal locks (valued over $16 billion), and also a Nicaragua canal between Punta Gorda and Brito transiting Lake Nicaragua. The proposed Nicaragua canal would pass through a number of undisturbed areas including several biosphere reserves, coastal wetlands, and migratory pathways. In addition, the canal route would run through Lake Nicaragua, an important source of drinking water and habitat for a number of rare species. Nicaraguan authorities estimate that the canal will take five years to construct and cost $50 billion. However, the status and viability of that project are uncertain. Enhancements to the Panama Canal and the development of a canal in Nicaragua will allow significantly larger ships (more than twice the size of current Panamax vessels) to transit the isthmus and are expected to result in significant changes to global shipping patterns. Increased capacity of the Canal Zone, with the dual use of the old, new and proposed sets of locks, and Nicaragua route, is likely to increase emissions in the Zone. But also provide increased opportunities to reduce trip lengths, fuel usage and overall emissions (in shipping lanes, land-side intermodal corridors and seaports). Many ports are also investing hundreds of millions to deepen entrance channels, widen turning basins, modify berths, purchase larger equipment and raise bridges to allow port calls for these larger vessels.


Development of a comprehensive assessment of net air quality impacts and benefits of the Panama Canal expansion and the possible development of a Nicaragua canal. This would include an evaluation of anticipated changes in vessel traffic, as well as an assessment of potential downstream changes in infrastructure at affected ports and their impact on air quality.


Changes in vessel traffic patterns will provide air quality benefits through lower emissions in some areas and increases in others, depending on the new routes that carriers select. Additional benefits will be realized from larger vessels that have lower emissions and move more cargo. Policy makers will need information about actual changes in traffic to target initiatives for controlling emissions.

Construction of a new canal route in Nicaragua and the resultant increased vessel traffic could harm several fragile ecosystems. The route could change the salinity regime and hydrodynamics, and increase underwater noise, spill potential, and air emissions. Considerable research has been conducted on the impacts that the Panama Canal expansion will have on global trade, but less research has been conducted for the Nicaragua canal.


The following three Phases are not comprehensive. They are intended as a guide to what might be necessary to successfully complete the research:

Phase 1

  • Compile and review historic and projected vessel activities, characteristics, composition for calendar years 2000 through 2050, associated with the expansion of the Panama Canal and the potential development of the Nicaraguan Canal.

  • Develop a set of model vessels that transit the enhanced Panama Canal and Nicaraguan Canal. Include sufficient data to estimate emissions from these vessels.

  • Map out current and future routes taking into consideration global population growth, trade trends, capacity constraints and depth limitation (using both current and authorized depths) of the ports that may be receiving these vessels.

  • Using the model vessels and current and projected routes, estimate current and future emissions. Projections should consider transitions in fuel types over time (e.g., switch to LNG or low sulfur bunker).

  • Quantify the volume of cargo diverted from alternate routes (including landside intermodal movements, and vessels transiting around the Cape Horn and Suez Canal), and estimate associated emissions reductions to these routes.

  • Address and consider Pacific and Gulf of Mexico transloading and transshipment opportunities and trends.

  • Provide a summary of Phase 1 activities, including summary of vessel traffic assumptions, GIS maps of current and projected routes along with associated emissions and emission reductions for diverted cargo.

Phase 2

  • Review available studies of the Nicaraguan’s ecosystems that the new canal will transit. Including assessments of:

    *   Changes in the salinity

    regime and hydrodynamics,

    • Increase underwater noise, and

      *   Vessel collision

      and spill potential.

  • Identify deficiencies and data gaps in these studies and recommend future research that would help quantify ecological impacts to the development of the canal.

Phase 3

  • Prepare Phase 1 report on air quality impacts to the expansion of the Panama Canal and development of the Nicaraguan Canal.

  • Prepare Phase 2 report of state of knowledge of Ecological impacts of the development of Nicaraguan Canal, recommending future studies needed to better appreciate the impacts.

  • Develop and implement plan to disseminate these reports.

We need to establish a projection time period. We should establish a trend of at least 10 years (I recommend using 2000 to establish a trend before 2008 downturn – and look out at least 30 years (design life of most port investments).


Organizations such as MARAD and Green Marine could find this information useful in identifying trends, tracking activity and impacts associated with the canals and could lead the implementation of this project in conjunction with TRB, AASHTO, and trade organizations such as American Association of Port Authorities.


Findings from this research effort will be useful for identifying and projecting trends, research gaps, and assisting industry partners in decision making.

Sponsoring Committee:AW030, Marine Environment
Research Period:6 - 12 months
Research Priority:Medium
RNS Developer:Richard Billings and Dan Fitz-Patrick
Source Info:Industry expertise from AW030 Marine Environment Committee members.
Date Posted:01/02/2018
Date Modified:01/22/2018
Index Terms:Pollutants, Environmental impacts, Ecology, Panama Canal, Nicaragua Canal, Canals, Ports, Construction projects,
Cosponsoring Committees: 
Marine Transportation
Terminals and Facilities

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