Panama Canal Getting Bigger. Much Bigger.

A man, a plan, a canal. Panama!

It’s not just a quaint anagram. In this age of relentlessly expanding global commerce, Panama has been planning ahead, and is investing billions of dollars in supersizing the canal (photo gallery here) to allow the passage of the new breed of supersized cargo ships.  Even more coal mined from Appalachian mountains and Montana/Wyoming prairies — and possibly natural gas extracted from shale by hydraulic fracturing — will likely be shipped to Asia and other markets once this expansion work is completed.

The global warming-driven decline in Arctic sea ice might divert some of the cargo traffic Panama is counting on to pay for this expansion, if the Northwest Passage becomes a viable trade route. So in a bit of irony, by feeding the world’s addiction to fossil fuels, Panama may be undercutting its business plan.  Just sayin.

Here are a couple of images from Google Earth showing the area around the Caribbean end of the Panama Canal near the Gatun Locks, as it appeared in 2005 and with the expansion project well underway in 2012.

Panama Canal near Gatun, in 2005.


Panama Canal near Gatun, in 2012. Expansion of canal in progress to accommodate much larger ‘New Panamax’ cargo vessels.


Coal Export Terminal – Norfolk, Virginia

Every couple of weeks or so, the folks at DigitalGlobe/Geoeye publish a newsletter featuring various examples of recent high-resolution satellite imagery from around the world.  This is always an interesting, and often jaw-dropping, little publication to look through.  Among other things the latest edition features stunning imagery of Egyptian temples and offshore oil platforms, the Kaesong Industrial Complex in North Korea, and this massive coal-export terminal near Norfolk,Virginia:

High-resolution satellite image of coal-export terminal in Virginia. Download the WorldView Report from DigitalGlobe to see a much bigger version of this image.

As the market for coal-fired electricity generation here in North America shrinks due to the rise of cheap natural gas-fired power (thanks to fracking for shale-gas), exports of coal from the US to overseas markets in Europe and Asia are sharply increasing.  This booming export market is propping up the continued destruction of Appalachian mountains by mountaintop removal mining. It’s also fueling a rash of coal-train derailments impacting health and safety in communities across the nation, some far removed from the coal-mining areas and the export terminals.

As if we needed more reasons to reduce our crippling dependence on fossil fuels.