El Niño to Blame for Panama Canal Drought, Research Reveals

Drought That Snarled Panama Canal Was Linked to El Niño, Study Finds

El Niño, not Global Warming, Behind Panama Canal Drought, Study Reveals

An international team of scientists has determined that below-normal rainfall linked to the natural climate cycle El Niño, rather than global warming, was the driving force behind the recent drought in the Panama Canal. The drought has had significant implications for global trade as low reservoir levels have restricted cargo traffic in the canal for most of the past year.

Global Trade Disruptions and Local Water Supply Concerns

Due to insufficient water necessary to raise and lower ships, canal officials were compelled last summer to drastically reduce the number of vessels they permitted through the canal. This has caused costly problems for shipping companies around the globe. Only recently have canal crossings begun to gradually increase.

However, the researchers caution that the region’s water worries could escalate in future decades. As Panama’s population swells and maritime trade proliferates, water demand is projected to make up a significantly larger portion of the available supply by 2050. This could mean that future El Niño years may cause even greater disruptions, impacting not just global shipping, but also the water supplies for local residents.

Panama’s Rainfall Variations and their Impact

Despite being one of the wettest places on Earth, with the area around the canal receiving over eight feet of rain a year on average, Panama experienced only around three-quarters of its usual rainfall last year. This resulted in the nation’s third-driest year in almost a century and a half of records. The dry spell followed two others in 1997-98 and 2015-16, both of which coincided with El Niño conditions and similarly hampered canal traffic.

Investigating the Underlying Causes

Scientists sought to understand if this was a mere coincidence, or if it could be attributed to global warming and thus be a prelude to future occurrences. They examined weather records in Panama and utilized computer models to simulate the global climate under various conditions. Their findings indicated that lack of rainfall, not increased temperatures leading to higher evaporation rates, was the primary cause of low water levels in the canal’s reservoirs.

The Role of El Niño in Rainfall Reduction

Interestingly, the researchers found no evidence suggesting that human-induced climate change was behind the modest decrease in Panama’s wet-season rainfall in recent decades. Instead, they found a clear link between El Niño and below-average rainfall in the region. During an El Niño year, there’s a 5 percent chance that rainfall will be as low as it was in 2023, the scientists estimated.

Looking Ahead: Climate Trends and Predictions

At present, El Niño conditions are diminishing, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. La Niña, the opposite phase of the cycle, is anticipated to emerge this summer. While the cause of the slight drying trend in Panama remains uncertain, future trends in a warming climate are equally unclear, underscoring the complexity of climate dynamics and their impacts on both local and global scales.

The research on the Panama Canal drought was conducted by scientists affiliated with World Weather Attribution, a research initiative that investigates extreme weather events shortly after they occur. Their findings are yet to undergo peer review, but already offer significant insights into the intricate interplay between climate phenomena and their far-reaching consequences.