Chart Shows Dramatic Drop in Gatun Lake Levels as Drought Hits Panama Canal

Chart Shows Dramatic Drop in Gatun Lake Levels as Drought Hits Panama Canal

The Panama Canal is nearing a dire situation as water levels continue to steadily decrease in Gatun Lake, according to a water level chart shared by the Panama Canal Authority.

Climate change has global consequences. In the past year, severe weather events have caused everything from too much rain in California during the winter to severe droughts in the U.S. West negatively affecting Lake Mead and Lake Powell and decreasing water levels in the Sea of Galilee, Israel’s largest freshwater lake. Now, officials have raised the alarm about a yearslong drought that is harming Gatun Lake, which feeds the Panama Canal.

The lake’s water levels have been declining steadily since 2016, according to the chart, which was tweeted by daily business newsletter Morning Brew. The pattern is expected to continue through the midsummer months.

According to the Panama Canal Authority’s projections, the water level in the canal is expected to reach 78.2 ft. by 7/31.

This would surpass the previous record low of 78.3 ft. recorded in May ’16 & significantly fall below the 5-year average of 84.9 ft for the month of July.

— Morning Brew ☕️ (@MorningBrew) June 7, 2023

Supply chains have mostly recovered since the COVID-19 pandemic, but if Panama Canal water levels fall low enough, the shipment of goods through the canal will slow, once again skyrocketing the cost of shipping and potentially delaying the goods’ arrival time.

Drought Hits Panama Canal
A ship navigates through the Panama Canal in the area near the Americas’ Bridge in Panama City on April 24. Shipping could be slowed through the canal if water levels continue to fall.
Luis Acosta/AFP/Getty

The vast majority of the shipments originate or arrive in the United States. A 2021 Statista chart identified the U.S. as either receiving or sending 72.5 percent of shipments using the canal. China was the second highest at 22 percent, and Japan ranked third at nearly 15 percent.

The drought has persisted for years, but the arrival of warmer weather patterns with El Niño could worsen the situation and have a global impact on shipping. Although water levels historically rise at Lake Gatun in the summer, the Panama Canal Authority is predicting that they could fall this year, directly affecting shipping routes through the canal.

Newsweek reached out to the Panama Canal Authority by email for comment.

AccuWeather meteorologist Scott Homan told Newsweek that Lake Gatun levels were at 79.6 feet on Thursday.

“Anything below 79 feet causes an issue with shipping just because they need to have less cargo because of lower lake levels,” Homan said.

He said the record low was 78.3 feet in May 2016. Since April, precipitation in the region has been low, with May precipitation falling slightly above half of the historical average.

Homan expects the lack of precipitation to continue unless a tropical storm forms in the area. He predicted that the lake levels will continue to drop through July and possibly into August.

If that continues, the drought could have severe effects on the global economy. The canal is a global trading route that cuts through Panama, providing a 40-mile-long waterway for ships to greatly quicken their journeys. It is a direct route to many destinations and saves ships thousands of miles in travel.

The most common goods shipped on the canal are motor vehicles, petroleum products, grains and coal.

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