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In late 2006, voters in Panama approved a plan to widen and modernize the historic Panama Canal, which links the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific and is one of the world's most vital manmade waterways. This week, the planned expansion moved one step closer to reality as the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) announced it had determined the "best value" proposal for the design and construction of the new waterway's locks, the massive, gated concrete troughs that are sealed and flooded with water to allow ships to climb a waterway that travels far above sea level. The winner, the Consortium Grupo Unidos por el Canal, garnered the highest total points for its combined technical and price scores, the latter figure coming in at US$3,118,880,001.00.

The full plan for the Canal expansion involves the construction of new locks on both the Atlantic and Pacific sides of the Canal, the excavation of new access channels, the widening of existing channels, and the deepening of the navigation channels in GatĂșn Lake, the massive artificial lake that makes up one of the largest sections of the Canal route. Like passage through the current Canal channel, a transit of the new channel will involve traveling some 50 miles through a set of locks, which, through gravity alone, raise ships over the landmass of Central America -- up to 85 feet above sea level at Gatun Lake -- and down again on the other side.

The Canal's expansion was made necessary by the larger size of today's ships, both cargo and passenger. Currently, due to the dimensions of its lock chambers, the Canal can only accommodate vessels up to 965 feet long, 106 feet wide, and with a draft (the amount of ship below the water) of 39.5 feet -- so-called "Panamax" dimensions. Today, though, many cargo and cruise ships are built to post-Panamax dimensions, which bars them from the Canal but allows their operators to otherwise maximize their transport capacity.

Once the expansion project is complete (somewhere around 2014), it will effectively double the Canal's capacity by creating locks that are 1,400 feet long, 180 feet wide, and 60-feet deep -- enough to accommodate the large container and tanker ships that dominate cargo shipping and more than enough to allow passage by even the largest of today's cruise ships (Royal Caribbean's soon-to-be-launched Oasis of the Seas, which will measure 1,181 feet long and 154 feet wide, and have a draft of 30 feet). This will give cruise lines much greater flexibility in planning the deployment and itineraries of their largest, formerly post-panamax vessels, though the cost of using the Canal will still be a significant expense, with a one-way passage edging up toward $100,000 per ship.

"Today's event marks a critical milestone for the ACP and Panama as we determine which consortium will design and build the Canal's new locks," said ACP Administrator/CEO Alberto Aleman Zubieta in announcing the selection of Consortium Grupo Unidos por el Canal's proposal. "Throughout the review period, the ACP's Technical Evaluation Board and external auditors worked tirelessly to ensure an airtight course of action that reflects our staunch commitment to a fair, rigorous and transparent contracting process. Certainly, each step brings us closer to our end goal -- the historic expansion of the Panama Canal -- and we look forward to awarding the contract in the coming days."

Meanwhile, Down in the Mud

When the Canal expansion project began last year, it had an immediate if unplanned benefit: the furthering of scientific knowledge about distant prehistory. Scientists realized that the moving of millions of cubic meters of soil and rock would allow them unprecedented access to Central America's rich fossil record, which normally lies buried beneath millions of years of accumulated soil, debris, and decay. To date, scientists from the U.S. Smithsonian Institution and elsewhere have recovered thousands of significant fossils from the Canal Zone's soil, including the bones and teeth of horses, llama, rodents, crocodiles, and turtles that were buried when Panama was still a part of North America -- that is, before a natural land bridge created a connection with South America.

The New York Times has a fascinating article on the excavation process, here.

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