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Significant earthquake strikes near Panama Canal

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Errors have been corrected to remove unintentional implications that the recent earthquake/possible aftershocks in Panama would necessarily cause significant disruptions to Panama Canal port business and subsequently cause increasing container rates.

The ground shook for a little while in Central America overnight as a 6.2-magnitude earthquake struck near the border of Costa Rica and Panama, about 28 miles west of the city of San José de David, Panama. People reported feeling the tremor in Panama City, some 300 miles away. There have been no known deaths, injuries or areas of significant damage as of early this afternoon (June 26).

SONAR Critical Events: Earthquake in Central America on June 26, 2019.

Northern and western Panama are sparsely populated, for the most part, and frequently hit by earthquakes. Last month, a 6.1-magnitude quake with an epicenter also near San José de David damaged some property and injured at least two people. In 2003, a 6.7-magnitude earthquake in the region damaged or destroyed hundreds of homes and killed two people. The most significant recent earthquake came in 1991, when a 7.4-magnitude tremor killed 23 people and injured 500 others as well as causing hundreds of deaths in neighboring Costa Rica.

This earthquake’s epicenter was only 200 miles from some points on the Panama Canal, a crucial gateway for east Asian goods heading to the East Coast of the U.S., but ports are still operating smoothly.

One of the major ports in the region is Colon, located in Panama at the Caribbean entrance of the Panama Canal. The United Nations’ Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) placed the Colon port complex at the top of 2018’s list of the region’s port activity, handling 4.32 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs), 11 percent higher than 2017. Colon includes Manzanillo International Terminal (MIT), the largest transshipment port in Latin America and one of the most modern in the world. It also includes the Evergreen port (Colon Container Terminal) and Hutchison-Whampoa’s port of Cristobal, all located in the same area, which represents a huge dock frontage. The administration of the three ports is independent and private.

Port of Colon at the Panama Canal. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The Pacific side of the Panama Canal is home to another of the busiest commercial ports in Central America. The Port of Balboa is in a perfect geographic location to serve as an important distribution center for goods destined for the Far East, North America, the Caribbean, Central America and the west coast of South America. Nearly 100 acres (40 hectares) at the port are dedicated to container storage, with five docks on site that are available for use by container ships.

Finally, there’s Peurta Limon in Costa Rica. Several years ago, Limon and Moin joined to form a single infrastructure that made this new port one of the largest in Central America on the Caribbean coast, surpassing even Veracruz. Traffic of oil and its derivatives is the great strength of Limon-Moin, which is also a great exporting point for bananas in the region.

Last night’s earthquake, which hit around 12:30 a.m. local time in Panama, was shallow. It originated just 16.2 miles underground (26.2 kilometers), according to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) report. The USGS considers an earthquake shallow if it is less than 43 miles deep. Shallow earthquakes usually do more damage than deeper ones, depending on their magnitudes and proximity to fault lines.

A chance of damage from aftershocks comes with some earthquakes, but it’s not likely to happen in this case. While earthquakes and tremors are common in this area, a Panama Canal spokesperson told FreightWaves that they have never had an impact on the Panama Canal. Several earthquakes of a similar size have occurred in the region in recent months, but they also caused no disruptions to business in the Canal.

Nick Austin

Nick is a meteorologist with 20 years of forecasting and broadcasting experience. He was nominated for a Midsouth Emmy for his coverage during a 2008 western Tennessee tornado outbreak. He received his Bachelor of Science in Meteorology from Florida State University, as well as a Bachelor of Science in Management from the Georgia Tech. Nick is a member of the American Meteorological Society and National Weather Association. As a member of the weather team at WBBJ-TV in Jackson, Tennessee, Nick was nominated for a Mid-South Emmy for live coverage of a major tornado outbreak in February 2008. As part of the weather team at WRCB-TV in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Nick shared the Chattanooga Times-Free Press Best of the Best award for “Best Weather Team” eight consecutive years.