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Panama Canal Locking System


In the world, there are some spectacular projects of engineering, and one of them is the Panama Canal. In general, it connects the Pacific Ocean from the Atlantic ocean and vice-versa. Ships sailing between the east and west coast of the United States, which otherwise would be obliged to round Cape Horn in South America, shorten their voyage by about 8000 nautical miles (15000km) by using this canal. Considerable amounts of savings are also done by using this canal. The 82 km artificial waterway has Canal Locks at each end that lift the ships to Gatun lake (an artificial lake).

Why does Panama Canal have Locks ?

The Lock system in the Canal is designed to lift the ships to 85 feet to the main elevation of the Panama Canal and down again. The Canal locks operate by the gravity flow of waters from the lakes such as Gatun, Alajuela, and Miraflores. The main purpose of these locks is that the Gatun Lake does not flow to the Atlantic or the Pacific Ocean. This ensures that there is sufficient draft available for the ships to pass. Locks work on the basic principles of gravity and floatation.

How does the Panama Canal Lock System Work ?

We can consider the Lock system in Panama Canal as an enormous elevator. The vessels entering the canal are lifted by the lock gates and later lowered down to the sea. The following points will make you understand its mechanism:

  1. If the vessel enters from the Atlantic ocean, the first lock it comes across is the Gatun Lock.
  2. It is a three-step flight that lifts or lowers the ships 85 feet above the main sea level and opens to Gatun Lake.
  3. After crossing the lake, the vessel reaches Culebra Cut.
  4. Then comes the Pedro Miguel Locks. It is a single-step flight that lifts or lowers the ship 31 feet above sea level.
  5. Pedro Miguel Locks then lead to Miraflores Lake.
  6.    To exit the Panama Canal into the Pacific Ocean, the final set of locks is known as Miraflores Locks. It is a two-step flight that lifts or lowers the ship 54 feet above the main sea level.

All Panama canal locks are in pairs to ensure the ships pass in opposite directions.

Panama Canal

The height difference between the two lakes and the Pacific and Atlantic oceans causes the water to flood and empty the locks through culverts.  Huge valves are used to control the flow of water into the locks. The entire system is managed by a control center located at the respective lock gate.

 When Lock gates flood, the ship which is floating inside the lock gate rises with the rising water level and then enters the consecutive lock gates for further rise. The same technique is used to lower the ship by emptying lock gates. When emptying the locks, the ship lowers to proceed to the next lock gate.

Three locks in Panama Canal

  1. Gatun Lock
  2. Miraflores Lock
  3. Pedro Miguel Lock

The Miraflores and Pedro Miguel Locks are on the Pacific side and Gatun Lock is on the Atlantic side.

Under the new expanded Panama Canal, two new sets of locks were built one on each on the Atlantic side that is Gatun locks, and the Pacific side which is Miraflores Locks. The gates operate differently than the old ones and slide horizontally to let pass the ship and comprise lateral water-saving basins. These basins help the locks to be filled and emptied by gravity without the use of pumps.

Interesting Facts About Panama Canal

  1. The first ship to cross Panama Canal was SS Ancon. She was an American flagged cargo and passenger ship owned by the Boston Steam Ship Company.
  2. It helps the shipping industry to reduce carbon emissions and carbon footprints.
  3. It takes about 8 to 10 hrs to cross the Panama Canal which is about less than half of what it would take if they had to travel down and around the southern tip of South America.
  4. If a ship arrives without reservation, it can take several days to get through.
  5. To cross the canal, a toll must be paid. This toll is based on the ship’s cargo space. If it is a military ship the toll is based on its weight.
  6. The fastest transit was completed by in 2 hours 41 min by the US Navy’s Hydrofoil Pegasus in 1979.
  7. The Canal transports 4 percent of the of the world’s trade and 16 percent of the US borne trade.

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