A recent forecast of future trade suggests that by mid-21st century container ships could carry double the capacity of the largest present day ships. By then, a new potentially competitive sailing route could develop.
A decade ago, the bulk of the world’s sea-going container trade was carried aboard Panamax-size container ships of 5,000 TEU capacity. The combination of increased international trade and developments in transportation logistics required the development of larger container ships to sail between Europe and Asia, also between Asia and West Coast America. There was also a perceived need to upgrade the Panama Canal to transit much larger container ships and also increase the transit capacity of the Suez Canal by building a section of parallel navigation channel, with future plans to extend that parallel section.
At present, the Suez Canal allows passage to vessel of under 1,006 square meters submerged cross section, restricting passage to container ships of under 16.75 meters draft by 60 meters beam. Within the next decade, container ships built to 18 meters draft by 65 meters beam by 420 meters length and carrying over 28,000 TEUs could appear on the trans-Pacific service between west coast American ports and Asian ports, also between Asian ports and selected Brazilian ports such as Fortaleza (Pecem) sailing via the southern tip of Africa.
Changing weather patterns could provide a route for such ships between Asia and Europe.
Earth’s Weather History
Geologists and climatologists have discovered much about the earth’s weather history, dating back over several thousand years. The Arctic region has undergone multiple repeat cycles occurring every 10,000-years of warm periods where the region was free from ice. While climate change may contribute to a warming Arctic, the region has been free from ice during several previous periods. There is also a long-term cyclical history of El Nino and La Nina weather patterns and the earth has undergone several cycles of warming and cooling. Changing weather patterns are part of the earth’s long-term climatic history.
Canada’s Northwest Passage
While the sailing draft along Russian side of the Arctic sailing route is suitable for Seaway-max size of ships, most of the Canadian passage through McClure Strait and Barrow Strait between the Beaufort Sea and Baffin Bay exceeds a depth of 200 meters. Within the next decade, container ships of 28,000 TEUs could appear, as changing weather patterns and a warming Arctic could allow the Canadian passage to transit container ships for perhaps a period of three months per year. Perhaps within a quarter of a century, Canada’s northwest sailing season could extend from early May to late October.
Container ships that sail via the Canadian Arctic would likely sail from Asian ports such as Shanghai, Busan, Qingdao, Fuzhou and Hong Kong to east coast American ports such as Newark, Sydney NS and Melford Terminal NS as well as to European ports such as Rotterdam – Antwerp.
The future competitiveness of the Canadian passage will depend on the pace at which average temperature increases at the Arctic. Future enlarging the Suez Canal to transit larger container ships would depend on traffic sailing west from Asian ports such as Singapore, Vizhinjam (India) and Colombo to Europe and North America.
Beyond the next decade, container ships of more than double the capacity of neo-Panamax container ships could enter service and potentially sail via the Arctic for a few months per year. Such a development could divert traffic sailing between Asia and east Coast North America, away from the Panama Canal and to ship-to-ship container transshipment terminals currently being developed in Eastern Canada, from where a multitude of smaller vessels would sail to mainly American east coast ports and ports located along the St Lawrence Seaway. Shippers could seek to maximize container movement during the northern navigation season.
While the northern passage is open to shipping, super ships from western Asia ports will still sail via the Suez Canal to European and east coast North American ports. The future seasonal closure of the northern passage would result in a seasonal increase in mega-ship traffic sailing via the Suez Canal and involve ships sailing from eastern Asia ports to European ports, Port of Newark and east coast North American transshipment terminals. The combination of the development of larger future container ships and trans-Arctic navigation via Northern Canada represents future competition for the Panama Canal.
Future Port Modifications
While reconstruction was underway for the Panama Canal to transit larger ships, corresponding reconstruction began at many ports internationally to berth and provide service to larger ships. At the present time, a small number of international ports and planned ports that are under construction offer sufficient depth to clear the draft of the next generation of mega-size container ships. Most ports that serve the present generation of mega-size ships will require further dredging with possible modification to port entrances to deflect prevailing ocean currents so as to minimize build-up of silt following port deepening.
There may be scope to modify a few deep-sea ports that presently serve only bulk cargo carriers to function as stop-over ports-of-call for future mega-ships. Such ports would include Richard’s Bay and Saldanha Bay in South Africa, both located on the Asia – Brazil mega-ship route. By mid-century if projected trends in international trade continue, container ships of up to 35,000 TEUs could enter service and approach 19 meters draft, 39 meters height, 69 meters beam and 450 meters length. Some ports would require that bridges be raised in the future for such ships to arrive at quayside.
Long-term market projections suggest that by mid-century, international trade could require container ships of up to 50,000 TEUs capacity. Concept ships of up to 35,000 TEUs could fit into the envelope (draft, beam and length) of the largest oil tankers. Super-size ships would likely appear on the Asia – Brazil service and the trans-Pacific service between east Asia and west coast America.
Depending on the pace of Arctic warming and a future northern navigation season, future mega-size container ships could sail via the Canadian Arctic route on voyages between east Asia and Europe, also between east Asia and east coast North America. Future mega-ships sailing to the North American east coast and Europe from Asian ports such as Vizhinjam, Colombo and Singapore would provide future business for the future twin channels of the Suez Canal, perhaps with a wetted cross section increased from 1,006 square meters to 1,200 square meters and perhaps even greater. Future mega-size container ships could likely sail exclusively between transshipment terminals.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.