Almost a hundred years after the Panama Canal was first opened, a major expansion project is currently underway. The 50 mile passageway was originally designed to accommodate vessels up to 965 feet long, 106 feet wide, with a maximum draft of 39 feet. Today a new generation of megaships is making the canal obsolete. From freighters to cruise ships, vessels greater than 1,000 feet in length are common. To handle these larger hulls a seven year development program has begun that will add a third lane to accept ships up to 1,200 feet long, 160 feet wide, with drafts up to 50 feet.
The massive project, expected to cost in excess of $5 billion, involves constructing new locks, miles of new waterways, and deepening and widening some existing passageways. On shore, giant earth movers are busy excavating a new path for the ships, while at sea, huge dredges are working to increase the size and depth of the channels. Once complete, here’s how the reconstructed canal will operate; a megaship traveling from west to east will enter on the Pacific side and head up a long channel into new locks. The vessel will be lifted 85 feet to a newly constructed passageway next to the existing locks. The old and new waterways will merge into one that has been widened and deepened for the bigger boats. Five miles beyond, the ship will enter a man made lake where it will pass through a 45 mile long expanded navigation channel. On the other side of the lake it will pass through another brand new set of locks, then travel two more miles before exiting the canal into the Atlantic. The entire process will take about 10 hours.
The expansion project is yielding some interesting “artifacts”. A number of railroad wheels and a dredge bucket dating to the early 20th century were recently uncovered. Encountering this debris during dredging operations can dramatically impede progress, and equipment can be damaged running into these underground obstructions. To counter the problem officials at the Panama Canal Authority have brought several of JW Fishers Proton 4 magnetometers. These super sensitive metal detectors can locate large iron and steel targets at a range of hundreds of meters. Before excavating an area, a team surveys the sector with the magnetometer. If any ferrous metal objects are buried there, the Proton 4 will sound an alarm and show a change in the readout. Tracker software allows the mag data and GPS coordinates to be displayed and stored on a laptop. On the computer screen the mag operator can see the track of the survey boat as it moves over the search area to ensure no part is missed. Once the survey is complete, the team can quickly relocate the metal targets and remove them before dredging operations begin. Armed with the new equipment, authorities are confident the project will progress according to schedule and be finished on time.
For more information on the canal expansion project go to www.pancanal.com.