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Persistent Challenges in the Panama Canal Due to Low Water Levels

The Panama Canal faces significant and ongoing disruptions in its maritime supply chain due to limitations in traffic caused by exceptionally low water levels. This situation is the result of rapidly developing drought conditions from early this year through June, which have remained stable since then. In fact, 2023 has seen the driest starting from January to July since 2015, which had a similar rainfall rate (see figure below). This marks a departure from the long-term trend of increased humidity, according to data collected from 1981 to the present.

The average precipitation from January to July (mm/day) in the Panama Canal indicates that 2023 is the driest up to July since 2015, representing a significant shift from the long-term trend (represented by the green dashed line) observed in data from 1981 to the present.

While the low precipitation rate itself is not historically unprecedented, 2023 shows the steepest year-over-year decline in rainfall. This rapid drought, following a wet 2022, appears to be responsible for the sharp drop in water levels in the canal.

Over the past two months, there has been a slight improvement in precipitation, resulting in a stabilization of water levels in the Panama Canal after months of marked decline. However, the rains have not been abundant enough to raise water levels or alleviate the drought; instead, they have simply averted a more severe situation.

The forecast for the next two weeks indicates a period of heavy rains that could finally begin to raise water levels in the canal. Unfortunately, these heavy rains are likely to be temporary, as the second half of September is expected to bring widespread droughts to Panama once again. Furthermore, seasonal forecasts through the end of the year suggest that dry weather could persist. This means that water levels in the Panama Canal are likely to remain exceptionally low in the coming months, despite short-term improvements in the forecast.

In conclusion, critically low water levels in the Panama Canal are creating lasting challenges in the maritime industry and the supply chain. The sudden drought and reduced precipitation in 2023, following a rainy year in 2022, have resulted in a rapid decline in canal levels. Despite temporary improvements in rainfall, water levels are expected to remain low in the coming months, affecting navigation and trade through the canal. The industry must be prepared to adapt to this ever-changing situation.

Source: and KNMI/CPC”