Twenty million years ago, the oceans covered the area now known as Panama, flowing through a large gap in the continents of North and South America.
Beneath the surface, two plates of the Earth’s crust were slowly colliding with each other, forcing the Pacific plate to slide under the Caribbean plate. The pressure and heat produced by this collision spawned underwater volcanoes. About 15 million years ago, some of these volcanoes grew tall enough to break the surface, forming a chain of islands.
The islands gradually filled out as the two tectonic plates pushed up the sea floor, and, about three million years ago, the Isthmus of Panama emerged from the sea, a narrow strip of land dividing the two great oceans.
According to scientists, the formation of the Isthmus of Panama was one of the most important geologic events on Earth in the past 60 million years, with great impact on the planet’s climate and environment. The sliver of land re-routed the currents of the great oceans, creating the Gulf Stream and warming the denizens of northwestern Europe. Biodiversity on the continents increased exponentially, as animals were able to migrate on land to all corners of the world.
Nobody complained about this magnificently unfolding ecosystem until the guys with boats arrived.
In the late 19th century, global commerce was carried on ships. Because there was no easy way to get from the Pacific to the Atlantic and vice versa, these ships had to travel thousands of miles out of their way to reach their destinations, through treacherous waters at the bottom of South America near Antarctica.
This nagging problem was solved by one of the greatest feats in the history of human engineering, with a big assist from a political force of nature named Theodore Roosevelt. On August 14, 1914, the Panama Canal was completed, opening a 48-mile waterway between the two oceans and revolutionizing international commerce.
Over the past century, the waterway cutting through the Isthmus has been a reliable and indispensable artery for the world’s goods. But, like all arteries, it became clogged as traffic–and, more importantly, the size of ships–increased.
Today, this problem is being addressed with a $5.25-billion expansion of the Panama Canal that is scheduled to be completed on the Canal’s 100th anniversary in August 2014. The expansion will permit large ships from Asia to travel directly to East Coast destinations instead of offloading their goods on the West Coast and shipping them across the country by rail and road.
The impending unveiling of the new and improved Panama Canal has created a frenzy among major East Coast ports, all of which are aspiring to be the destination-of-choice for ships passing through the Canal. Economically, the stakes are enormous–the “winner” will reap billions of dollars in new shipping business.
In Savannah, GA, they are working around the clock to scrape six feet of mud from the bottom of the Savannah River. Port officials are racing to complete a $625-million channel deepening project by 2014.
Ports from New York to Miami are scrambling to spiff up their harbors and shipping channels. Baltimore and Norfolk already have 50-ft. channel drafts, and Philadelphia is upgrading. According to a recent report in The New York Times, the competition to become the go-to port for ships passing through the Canal is fiercest in the South, which has the closest East Coast ports to the Isthmus.
“Everyone is lined up, and the door is about to open,” Bob Pertierra, vice president of supply chain development for the Metro Atlanta Chamber, told the Times. “If you can imagine the crowded three- or four-lane highway you’re driving on suddenly getting expanded to 12 lanes, you can picture what’s about to happen.”
Joining Savannah in the jousting are Charleston, SC, Jacksonville, FL, and Miami. One hurdle that contenders must overcome is the fact that most major port expansions require Congressional approval, studies by the Army Corps of Engineers and a significant amount of federal funding.
According to the Times report, some sharp elbows are being thrown as state and local officials vie for the pole position in the big port contest. Curtis Foltz, executive director of the Georgia Port Authority, noted Savannah already is a much larger port than Charleston. “All you have to do is look at the numbers,” he told the Times. “The stats speak for themselves.”
The incoming governor of South Carolina picked up the gauntlet at a recent annual dinner for the ports, which was held the same day last month that the Corps of Engineers announced its approval for Savannah’s dredging project.
“You now have a governor who does not like to lose,” Gov.-elect Nikki Haley declared. “Georgia has had their way with us for way too long, and I don’t have the patience to let it happen anymore.”
Somewhere, Teddy Roosevelt is smiling. May the best port win, and earn a well-deserved “Bully!” from Mt. Rushmore.