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It's been called one of the seven wonders of the modern world. A century after it first opened, the Panama Canal continues to be a vital shortcut for global commerce – but now, almost half the world's cargo ships are too large to fit through it.
This year, MWH Global's redesign will change that.
In 2009, engineering firm MWH Global began designing one of the largest and most ambitious construction projects in the world: the expansion of the Panama Canal.
The new design will nearly triple the capacity of passing ships. It's a quantum leap. The $6 billion megaproject, which is set to open this year, uses the equivalent of 26 Eiffel Towers worth of steel and enough concrete – 190,000 tonnes – to construct the skyline of a major city.
What's the Panama Canal?
A 48-mile-long passageway that connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans
Why was the Panama Canal built?
To ship goods between the 2 coasts quickly, cheaply and safely
Who built the Panama Canal?
After an initial attempt by France in the late 1800s, the US built it from 1904-1914
AMOUNT IN TOLLS COLLECTED EACH YEAR
NUMBER OF TRADE ROUTES SERVED
OVER 1 MILLION
NUMBER OF SHIPS THAT HAVE CROSSED SINCE OPENING
NUMBER OF HOURS IT TAKES TO CROSS
The Panama Canal rises 85 feet above sea level. That is about nine storeys high.
To pass through the canal, a ship enters a lock – think of it as a massive boat lift. Once the ship enters the lock, water from a man-made lake is pumped in, which lifts the ship. The vessel then sails across the channel and is carried back down by locks on the other side.
It will be an engineering and construction feat to lift and guide today's supersized ships – over 1,000 feet long and 40 feet high – through the canal and then back into the ocean, all without damaging the surroundings. MWH Global was up for the challenge.
26m / 85ft
Expand existing channels:
Widen 21.3m / 70ft
Deepen 5.4m / 18ft
Lengthen 121m / 400ft
Create a new channel, with 3 new lock chambers on each side
Raise the maximum operating level of Gatun Lake, the primary water source for the locks
How many engineers does it take to change a canal? More than 400, all of them under pressure to stay ahead of construction.
ENGINEERS ON THE PROJECT
CUBIC FEET OF EARTH EXCAVATED
HEIGHT OF EACH LOCK
DEPTH OF CHANNELS
"The most daunting challenge was meeting the high design performance requirements. This is the Panama Canal. We could not afford to make a mistake. And the clock was ticking."
— Mike Newbery, project lead, MWH Global
A MORE SUSTAINABLE FUTURE
Can a project this massive also be minimalist?
It had to be. Gatun Lake not only helps operate the locks, it's a major source of drinking water for Panama. With so much fresh water being used by the canal, MWH Global had to find a way to expand the passageway, which would require significantly more water, all while using significantly … less water.
How did they do it?
By installing three new water storage basins – the largest in the world – the largest in the world—MWH Global will be able to:
When it was first built, the Panama Canal changed the world of commerce. Thanks to MWH Global, it will do it again.