The Panama Canal Authority will set draft restrictions on shipping using the vital east-west waterway as the El Nino weather phenomenon causes water levels to fall well below average for this time of year.
In an advisory to shipping, the authority set the maximum draft at 11.89 meters (39 feet) Tropical Fresh Water, effective April 18, 2016. The maximum authorized transit draft was defined as the deepest point of TFW immersion for each specific vessel in Gatun Lake.
The ACP said the measure would be taken to ensure the continuous and safe operation of the canal, it would be temporary and preventive, and the draft restrictions were a response to changing rainfall patterns associated with El Niño, which warms the waters of the Pacific Ocean.
“When this occurs, El Niño changes the pattern of rainfall in many regions of the planet,” the advisory said. “In this case, it has triggered a drought in the Canal Watershed, causing the water levels of Gatun and Alhajuela Lakes to fall substantially below their average for this time of year.”
Vessels loaded to drafts over 11.89 meters prior to, or on March 21, will have their draft restriction waived for transit, subject to safety considerations. Vessels loaded after March 21 shall comply with the new draft limitation, the advisory said.
Draft restrictions will be implemented in 15-centimeter (six-inch) decrements at a time, with each restriction announced at least four weeks in advance. The Panama Canal will continue to monitor and manage the water levels, and should further draft restrictions be confirmed, notice will be given at least four weeks in advance to give customers time for proper planning.
This is not the first time the Panama Canal has been forced to issue draft restrictions. Restrictions were announced last year, but rains lifted water levels and they were not necessary. El Niño brings drought to Panama and draft restrictions were imposed during the 1997-1998 season.
The Panama Canal is expected to open its new and expanded locks to commercial traffic in the third quarter, and draft restrictions will lay out a very unwelcome mat to world shipping should they still be in place. With the expanded waterway and locks, the canal will be able to handle ships that can carry up to 13,000 twenty-foot-equivalent units, or more than two-and-a-half times the capacity of the current Panamax vessels.
However, carriers are not expected to immediately start deploying the largest capacity ships the new locks can handle. “At the very beginning I expect 9,000 to 10,000-TEU ships will be the workhorses for the first, say, half a year to a year, and then we will see them going to the next level, which could be anywhere from a 12,000-TEU to a 13,000-TEU vessel,” Panama Canal Administrator Jorge Quijano told JOC.com.