Why couldn’t they just dig a trench big enough to connect the Pacific and Atlantic instead of the lock system of the Panama Canal?


Saw a post about the canal, and this question popped up.

In: 9

We could in that it’s theoretically possible. But it would be much more work. Right now, the high point of the canal is about 26m above sea level now, which was lowered from 64m in the “famed” Gaillard cut.

Now, in order to make a safe canal, you can’t just blast a narrow channel, you basically need to make a fake valley with fairly gently sloping sides. The point is, it’s a lot of earth and rock to be moved. Making the entire canal at sea level would require really just immense amounts of explosives and earthmoving. It’s definitely physically feasible, even when the canal was built: you just need a lot of dynamite and a lot of manpower.

Incidentally, creating a wide, sea-level canal in Panama (or Nicaragua) was one of the plans proposed as part of Project Plowshare, a US initiative to find peaceful uses for nuclear bombs.

The Panama Canal was already one of the most difficult engineering projects in the history of the human race, and involved thousands of deaths. Even today, the jungle around it is one of the world’s most inhospitable, full of nasty tropical diseases, impassable forested mountains, and some of the most undisturbed natural environments on Earth. No one really wanted to make it harder than it already was.

In fact, the French had tried to do exactly what you suggest. After 20,000 deaths and huge expenditures, they’d laid the foundation for most of the southern half of the current canal system before realizing that the sea-level plan wasn’t viable. What you’re talking about here is cutting a sea-level track through a mountain range in such a way that it won’t collapse, and that requires a tremendous amount of earth-moving – more than the huge amount that would be required even for the much easier later design.

So the American crews that took over later swapped to a design that was wider but shallower, which was still one of the harder bits of engineering ever done, and ended up producing what is today known as the [Culebra Cut](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Culebra_Cut) section of the canal.

They could have.

It just would have meant two things:

Moving a FUCKTON more dirt. Like seriously. You would have to move billions of pounds of dirt and rock. It would be an insane amount of earth to move.

and building a longer canal. because they current panama canal actually takes a shortcut through an existing really big lake. So the actual distance they had to dig was much less. But if you didn’t use locks, then the whole lake would drain away, meaning you would have to build the canal somewhere else and dig through EVEN MORE dirt and rock.

The current panama canal had to move 240 million cubic yards of earth to be built, or about 180 empire state buildings. Doing it your way would have to move probably BILLIONS of cubic yards.

TL:DR they did it the way they did it because it was cheaper to use Gatun Lake instead of digging even more earth.

Most of the canal wasn’t built by digging a trench. It exploits the existing terrain and uses dams to raise the water level such that the existing lakes are deep enough to traverse. It would be a much much bigger job to have dug a trench the whole way – its not impossible, but it probably would still be being dug today.