U.Va. and Semester at Sea Students Explore an Engineering Icon and Social Touchstone: The Panama Canal

June 28, 2011 — At the time of its construction in the early 20th century, the Panama Canal was an engineering marvel. Today, there's still plenty to marvel at – and to examine.

In what has to be one of the largest construction projects in the world, the Autoridad del Canal de Panama has undertaken a $5.3 billion expansion that is scheduled for completion in 2014, the 100th anniversary of the opening of the canal. Huge dredges, massive excavators, hundreds of trucks and thousands of workers are in action day and night.

Ed Berger, a University of Virginia engineering professor, has been a frequent visitor, accompanying students on two trips to the canal since last summer and recently teaching a course on the spring voyage of Semester at Sea, "Engineering a New Tomorrow."

"To see it firsthand – not just the operation of the canal as it is today, but the expansion project – gives them idea of how big it is," he said. "Everywhere you look, there's good engineering in action. It's really good, really sound and really modern."

But it's so much more, Berger said. Aboard the Semester at Sea ship, the MV Explorer, he shared five projects by U.Va. engineering undergraduates who examined the social implications of the canal expansion. (All five students graduated in May.)

Borna Kazerooni, who is now enrolled as a graduate student in U.Va.'s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, and Christine Lan completed a thesis on the technical and social issues related to the canal's vulnerability to the effects of climate change. Water to raise ships in the canal comes from the freshwater Gatun Lake, which is fed by Panama's tropical rains.

For their technical research, they developed a computational model that shows how variations in rainfall and temperature can affect the canal's net water level. They used as a baseline the 1997-98 El Niño season, which produced the most severe droughts in the history of the canal region. The low water levels during drought caused rolling electricity blackouts in Panama and restrictions on the size of ships that could transit the canal.

Kazerooni and Lan found that there would need to be an increase in average temperature of 8 degrees Celsius or a 90-millimeter decrease in annual rainfall to produce the same net water loss experienced during that El Niño season. They hope their model might serve as an example of how to incorporate climate change factors into computational models that are used to produce engineering design plans.

The researchers also explored the social issue of framing the climate change debate. They reviewed literature on the subject, looking closely at Roger Pielke's book "Climate Fix" before developing their own position.

They concluded that as long as scientific studies disagree on the existence and causes of climate change, people with particular political views will be able to cherry-pick studies that best support their stance. Instead of debating whether climate change is real or caused by human activity, the students concluded, it would be more effective, from a policy standpoint, to treat it as a problem to be managed.

Asked Kazerooni: "Who would argue that we shouldn't build stronger levees or more resilient communications systems or decentralized power grids that can withstand severe storm events?" That was especially evident when epic rains in December briefly closed the canal for the first time in its history.

While the canal is widely known as a monumental engineering achievement, it also carries deep social significance for Panamanians. Though the canal bisects their country, Panamanians for decades were barred from living in the U.S.-controlled "canal zones" on the Atlantic and Pacific sides, and they couldn't even remain after dark.

On Jan. 9, 1964, a riot involving Panamanian students, canal officers and U.S. soldiers resulted in the deaths of about 21 Panamanians and four U.S. soldiers. The day is now a national holiday in Panama known as Martyr's Day. It is considered a pivotal moment in the negotiations that ultimately led to the 1977 treaty that transferred the canal's ownership to Panama, which took control of the waterway in 1999.

Throughout its history, the canal has been a beacon of prosperity, as well as a flashpoint for advocates of social justice and environmental causes. Student Daniel Saboe explored how technical and social factors are influencing decisions about expanding the canal and meeting its future water-supply demands.

Expansion plans once proposed the creation of several artificial lakes that would supply the water necessary to lift ships through the locks. Saboe discovered that a law to create those lakes had been repealed and decided to investigate why.

He interviewed documentary filmmaker Enrique Castro, as well as Maria Muñoz, leader of an activist group opposed to creating the lakes. Saboe learned that the lakes would have flooded villages, displacing about 12,000 people.

Saboe also interviewed engineers from the canal authority about the water supplies needed to expand the canal. He found that the decision to repeal the law was due as much to the work of the activists as it was to the technical requirements of expansion. Engineers determined there was enough water supplied from Gatun Lake, now the primary source of not only water for the canal but also drinking water, to allow operations to continue for at least another 20 years.

For Saboe, studying the canal expansion was an opportunity to put his broad-based U.Va. engineering education to the test. The project was especially relevant to courses taught in the school's Department of Science, Technology and Society.

"Engineers like number-crunching, and there's certainly that aspect in relation to the watershed and water quantity available in the future," he said. "At the same time, the canal is specifically related to the quality of life for people in the country and to the economic well-being of Panama."
The Semester at Sea students, who studied six Caribbean and Central American countries in the context of the U.N. Millennium Development Goals – addressing food security, water and sanitation, health, the environment and economic development – also considered both technical and social issues, Berger said.

"Whether you're an engineering student or not, all of these big projects have technical aspects, but also social aspects, so we call them socio-technical systems," Berger told the Semester at Sea students, among them 16 current U.Va. engineering students. "It's a system described by complex interactions of technology, engineering, social issues, social justice, economic issues, environmental issues – all these things wrapped up into one."

— By Zak Richards and Marian Anderfuren

Media Contact

Zak Richards

Senior Writer/SEAS