Being level-headed about shipping over water

By Andrew Joseph, Editor

Water is important. Aside from the human body being made up of about 60 percent water, about 71 percent of our planet’s surface is covered by water.

According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, transportation by water accounts for about 80 percent of all global trade.

As such, we use our water resources quite heavily as a means of transportation, precisely to move goods in and out of Canada. Water transportation is also relatively inexpensive, with a low dollar-per-ton-per-mile ratio, and it can transport many products in one trip.

And while shipping is often the least expensive way of moving large quantities of goods over long distances, its biggest drawback is its slow transit time. It certainly would not be the first option for farmers wanting to ship fresh fruits. Not being able to deliver crops on time—well, we all know time is money.

Importing goods into Canada by ship is a no-no for fresh fruit, firewood, most weapons, and propaganda—all prohibited items for Canada.

Other than that, the Canadian shipping industry sees everything, from clothes and electronics to grain and produce. Liquid cargoes such as canola oil, chemicals, and oversized bulky items like lumber, machinery, mining materials, steel, ore, and automobiles have also been moved.

According to the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway System, grain shipped for export by the US and Canada primarily includes wheat, corn, soybeans, barley, oats, and flaxseed.

Speed is a concern within the shipping industry for those who demand speedy delivery. Ships and barges travel between eight and 18 kph on inland routes such as the St. Lawrence River or Mississippi River and up to 32 kph on the open seas or oceans.

The other negative aspect of its usage is access. Not every country has access to a port, though financial purchases can be made to create access.

Since the beginning of trade between countries and cultures, access to ports and water transportation has been a make-or-break economic and political factor. In other words, many countries have gone to war seeking such access.

Although never stated in history books as the primary cause of war, access to water has long been a contributing factor.

Violence between pastoralists and farmers in sub-Saharan Africa is on the rise. Attacks on civilian water systems during wars that start for other reasons have increased, such as in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and, most recently, Ukraine.

Land Ho-Ho-Ho!

In the oceans and seas, we can point to China’s brilliant plan that has seen it create artificial islands off its coast to extend its territorial waters and, thus, its legal reach.

It would be funny if it weren’t so Wile E. Coyote-brilliantly dangerous.

According to international law, a country’s territorial sea extends 22 kilometres from its baseline. So, when China built itself a new island 21 kilometres from its baseline, it effectively extended its territory by an additional 21 kilometres into the waters of the South China Sea.

China built an airport on one of these artificial islands to emphasize its point, allowing it to fly and “protect” its newfound watery extension.

Seven of its islands have military airports on them.

Then there’s UNCLOS, aka the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, an international agreement establishing a legal framework for all marine and maritime activities. As of May 2023, 168 countries and the European Union, including China, are parties.

UNCLOS determined that a state may not build an artificial island within another state’s exclusive economic zone. In this way, the tribunal interpreted UNCLOS.

Despite China being a part of the law-abiding UNCLOSUNCLOS

In a beautiful act of Confucian-like geo-political poetry, China explained, “Just like both wings of a bird, neither can be neglected.”

The point here is that water is and has been a geopolitical tool. For more proof, think about the Panama Canal.

A Country Divided

We’re not talking about pirates in the Middle East or strikes at Canadian ports. Instead, we are talking about water levels being too low or too high, causing delays in shipping that affect perishable goods, causing ships to take longer trips, and alternative routes that eat up more fuel. Time and costs that affect people, businesses, sectors, and countries.

It’s happening now.

Along with issues on Canadian rivers and the Great Lakes, we see this occurring now along international waters, including the Mississippi River, Suez Canal, and Panama Canal—the latter three facing historically low water levels.

Drought has affected water levels in the Mississippi, but it has also affected shipping through the Panama Canal.

Finished in 1914 and providing Pacific and Atlantic Ocean traffic access through Panama via a series of locks, the Panama Canal symbolized US technological prowess and economic power. Although US control of the canal eventually irritated relations between the US and Panama, it was considered a significant foreign policy achievement.

After construction, all those workers were left jobless, which led to an economic crisis in Panama.

To make matters worse, Panama did not even have control over the Panama Canal. Nope.

The canal and the Canal Zone surrounding it came under the US administration, causing the Central American leadership much internal political strife for many decades.

For example, the Canal Zone in Panama was considered United States property. From February 26, 1904, through October 1, 1979, a person born in the Canal Zone acquired US citizenship as long as at least one parent was a US citizen at the time of that person’s birth.

However, on September 7, 1977, one of the most remarkable feats in human engineering was transferred via the Torrijos-Carter Treaty when US President and peanut farmer Jimmy Carter transferred control of the canal to Panama for US$1.

Although canal control was ceded then, the transferal process was not fully completed until December 31, 1999.

The average person doesn’t know or care about transporting goods across water. But, if they haven’t already, they will soon begin to hear more about the trials and tribulations of shipping via ship.

The Panama Canal is a critical trade route that connects North America and Asia.

Because of lowered water levels in the Panama Canal’s Gatun Lake, the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) slowed down the number of vessels that could pass through its locks in December 2023.

The low water levels even forced the Panama Canal Authority to hold auctions to determine which ships could pass through its locks—not even first come, first served. The drought affecting the feeder source, Lake Gatun, caused these low water levels in the canal.

The artificially created lake—then the largest in the world—provides water to the Panama Canal’s complex lock systems.

It was created in 1913 by damming the Chagres River, allowing it to provide the millions of litres of water necessary to operate its locks each time a ship passes through.

Usually, the canal would allow 36 daily ships to pass through it. However, with the drought affecting water levels, it dropped to 22 ships a day this past December. As of January 2024, the number of vessels passing through did increase slightly to 24 a day.

Will canal traffic improve soon? Although Panama has just entered a dry season, it is expected to see relief by the end of April 2024.

If we do the math, from the beginning of 2024 through the end of April, the Panama Canal will move 121 fewer vessels across it relative to the number moved in an average year.

Due to their contracts, containerships have priority whenever they need to cross the Panama Canal, which is a kick in the teeth for vessels carrying wet bulk and dry bulk goods such as grain, corn, and other agricultural products.

However, not every vessel is floating about, waiting for its lucky number to be called.

With the necessity of getting Canadian and US exports of corn, soybeans, and grains to hungry customers, some ships are finding alternate routes to the Panama Canal by going through the Suez Canal or around the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa.

Like the Panama Canal, the Suez Canal is an artificial sea-level waterway in Egypt. Through the Isthmus of Suez, it connects the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea.

Those opting to take the Suez Canal route add 18 days of travel each way while going down and around the Cape of Good Hope adds 22 days. Better late than never—even if it means dollar penalties for arriving late are applied.

According to a November 2023 CNBC news article, the ACP fears that the current El Niño weather event may be the worst the area has seen in recent history.

Due to the drought, it is predicted that cuts to traffic through the Panama Canal will reduce regular traffic by over 40 percent.

For the US, 40 percent of all its container traffic moves through the Panama Canal locks annually, equaling about US $270 billion in trade.

Those Great Lakes

Long a crossword puzzle clue, “HOMES” is the acronym for the five Great Lakes of North America: Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior. Excluding Lake Michigan, which is wholly within the US, the other four share waters between the US and Canada.

These lakes connect North America’s central interior to the Atlantic Ocean via the St. Lawrence Seaway, forming one of the longest deep-draft navigational systems on Earth.

These freshwater lakes are the second-largest by total volume, containing 21 percent of the planet’s surface freshwater by volume. The total surface area is 244,106 km2, and the total volume—measured at the low water datum—is 22,671 km3.

This bi-national waterway between the US and Canada has been the foundation of the region’s economy for over 200 years.

Before railroads and highways, the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River were the primary transportation systems. North America’s largest cities were established along the waterway as commerce flourished between their ports. Some of those ports include Québec City, Montréal, Trois-Rivières, Saint-Hyacinthe, and Gatineau in the province of Québec and Cornwall, Brockville, Ottawa, and Pembroke in Ontario.

Nowadays, over 160 million tons of waterborne cargo are transported within the region or to overseas destinations.

Within the Great Lakes, two factors affect their productivity: water levels and water temperature.

The water level is defined as the height of the lake surface above sea level.

Precipitation, snowmelt runoff, drought, evaporation rates, and people diverting or taking water for industrial uses affect water levels.

Water temperature, however, is influenced by multiple factors, including the surrounding air temperature. When it’s hot outside, evaporation occurs.

An increase in global temperature highlights that we—the planet—are in the midst of a climate change.

Considering that Canada includes many areas within the northern climes of its three territories of Yukon, the Northwest Territories, and Nunavut, all of which are part of the Arctic Circle, the average temperature in Canada in 2021 was -3.1°C.

Even acknowledging climate change, the average temperature in Canada has seen a “high” of -3.22°C in 2016 and a drop to -4.67°C in 2018.

According to Statistics Canada, the country’s average temperature for 2022 was 1.2°C above a 1961–1990 reference value, making it the 16th warmest year since 1948.

Even though it contradicts scientific acceptance of global warming, Canada’s temperatures have gone up one year and down the next.

However, a new national temperature high is expected for 2023, given that the planet reached new average highs multiple times this past summer.

According to the National Centers for Environmental Information, 2023 was the warmest year since global records began in 1850, with a temperature of 1.18°C (2.12°F) above the 20th century average of 13.9°C (57.0°F).

This value is 0.15°C (0.27°F), higher than the previous record set in 2016. For those wondering about global warming, it’s still warmer than the national average of 1960-1991, but why didn’t the temperature increase to record levels in 2017-2022?

We could state that with global economies shutting down because of COVID-19, greenhouse gas emissions were significantly reduced in 2020 and 2021. However, that doesn’t explain the other years when no record high was achieved, especially 2017–2019.

[ED. Note: If someone wants to provide a written scientific explanation, please get in touch with the editor for inclusion in our next CAAR Communicator issue.]

Regardless, the surface water temperatures on the Great Lakes have warmed, reducing water levels across all five lakes. The higher surface temperatures cause more evaporation and a later ice formation, extending the season for evaporation.

Lower water levels within the Great Lakes are hardly a new phenomenon. Low water levels caused ships to reduce their cargo weight (tonnage) by five to eight percent between 1997 and 2000.

The big deal is that to ship the same amount of product, more voyages would be required, which would increase shipping costs and fuel usage.

Low water levels in the Great Lakes (and St. Lawrence and Mississippi Rivers, et al.) have also negatively affected local-area infrastructure such as piers, docks, and shoreline ecosystems.

Less discussed as a weather phenomenon caused by the water levels on the Great Lakes is the increase in lake-effect snow.

In order: warm air, warm water, reduced ice cover, increased evaporation, and increased precipitation over land near the shore, which, when it’s cold, means more snow.

More snow isn’t bad, as it means more water in the soil, which is better for crop growth. However, for the populace near the lake, it can mean more difficulty getting around during the winter, not to mention more heart attacks suffered while shovelling.

Warmer waters can also mean an increase in range for certain invasive species, such as the zebra mussel or the Chinese mitten crab—both of which made their way to Canadian waters attached to ships or contained within dumped water ballast.

Zebra and quagga mussels are invasive freshwater mussels found throughout Ontario, Québec, and Manitoba. Native to the Black Sea region of Eurasia, these two mussels arrived in the Great Lakes in 1986 via ballast water in the larval stage and spread throughout North America.

The freshwater Chinese mitten crab was first reported in the Great Lakes in 1965. Over the years, it has been spotted sporadically on Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. In 2004, it was also seen in the St. Lawrence River. In 1992, it was spotted along the California coast—a sign that it could eventually enter British Columbia waters via shipping activities.

Lastly, warmer water in the Great Lakes (and anywhere, for that matter) could encourage the growth of waterborne bacteria, some of which could be detrimental to human health.

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, the average surface water temperatures for all five Great Lakes have increased slightly since 1995.

The increase in water temperature has been driven by warming during the spring and summer months and could be related to earlier winter thawing.

Water flows from the Great Lake of Superior to Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, southward to Lake Erie, and northward to Lake Ontario, which outlets into the St. Lawrence River.


Let’s give credit where credit is due.

Long before European trappers named the St. Lawrence River, the Algonquin people who inhabited one part of the region called it Magtogoek (i.e., ”walking the path”).

In another part, the Mohawk call it the Kaniatarowanenneh, or the “big waterway.” No disrespect is meant to the Mohawk/Iroquois people, but as a single-line subheading, Magtogoek fits better.

With an area of 1.6 million km², the St. Lawrence Seaway runs 3,058 km from the farthest headwater to the mouth and 1,197 km from the outflow of Lake Ontario. It connects the Great Lakes to the northern part of the Atlantic Ocean. Flowing northeasterly from Lake Ontario to the Gulf of St. Lawrence flows through Ontario, Québec, and New York State.

Technically, the St. Lawrence River is just a large part—of the Saint Lawrence Seaway. While the St. Lawrence River flows from Lake Ontario to the Atlantic Ocean, legally, the Seaway extends from Montréal, Québec, to Lake Erie, including Ontario’s Welland Canal.

That was about as clear as Mississippi mud, which we’ll get to shortly.

Because the Seaway empties into the ocean, it is an economic powerhouse for all the industrial and agricultural regions near enough to take advantage of its waterway.

Like all rivers, the St. Lawrence River is changing, much of it because of human intervention.

Since the 1960s, the river has experienced dredging of the shipping channel, re-depositing elsewhere of the dredged materials, construction of spillways, bridges, and tunnels, and the creation of Notre Dame Island opposite Montréal. Per the St. Lawrence Action Plan, which monitors the river, all of the above have played a key role in altering “the configuration of the river bottom and, as a result, the spatial distribution of water levels.”

The St. Lawrence Action Plan also noted that standard winter maintenance of the shipping channel has included installing booms to maintain navigability, which has also changed the natural distribution of levels and flows.

“For example, by minimizing the frequency and extent of ice jams,” explained the St. Lawrence Action Plan. “Also, water levels are affected by the growth of aquatic plants in summer and ice cover in winter, and by winds and tides.”

So, what does this all mean for the shipping industry? Residents along the Seaway have seen firsthand how low the water has become, as their docks lay nearly fully exposed or lack enough water to launch a boat without getting stuck in the mud.

But it’s also affecting the larger transport vessels.

In 2019 and 2020, water levels along the St. Lawrence were extremely high, higher than average. But from 2021 on, drought has affected the St. Lawrence River and its feeder, Lake Ontario (which is fed by the other Great Lakes, etc.).

For more coverage on the drought and the 89-year Benner Cycle of predictable weather patterns, see the August 2023 issue of the CAAR Communicator online (

Because reduced water levels have affected the Lower St. Lawrence River on the upstream approach to the Port of Montréal, deep-draft sailing vessels approaching Montréal have been requested to sail at a reduced speed.

Another solution was to have the big vessels partially unload at the Port of Québec City or the Port of Halifax to reduce the draft and ensure a safer sail into the Port of Montréal.

During the winter months, the St. Lawrence River section of the St. Lawrence Seaway from Montréal to Lake Ontario is scheduled to close around the end of December. But not this winter.

Because of a week-long Seaway strike in October 2023, officials from the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation decided that it would close on January 5, 2024, “partially to help offset the impacts of the October traffic interruption as well as to support critical North American export activity, particularly of US and Canadian agricultural products, at the end of the shipping season.”

That all sounds great, especially for our agricultural concerns here in Canada.

However, keeping the Seaway open longer isn’t without its fair share of risks.

According to John Peach, the Executive Director of Save The River, a grassroots advocacy group working to protect the Upper St. Lawrence River, keeping it open longer when it gets colder and icier can cause safety issues.

“It’s much harder to operate safely out there in icing conditions. It’s colder. It’s harder for the people,” explained Peach.

In a North Country Public Radio interview, Peach explained that ice tends to build up on the shoreline quickly, which means any spilled material could become trapped and unable to be cleaned up until the ice melts.

“If you have a spill and the contaminants, the pollution, get underneath the ice, there’s not good technology out there on cleaning up underneath the ice,” he said.

For the port or vessel workers, Peach noted that it’s difficult to launch a rescue craft to get responders to a ship in the cold and icy weather.

The closure date of January 5, 2024, is the latest since the Seaway opened in 1959.

The Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation said it considered all possible safety and environmental conditions before opting for the later closing date.

A statement said: “These include, but are not limited to, vessel safety, emergency response capability and coordination, weather and environmental conditions, water levels and water management, and domestic and international trade forecast models.”

The Big Muddy

Drought has virtually dried up the Mississippi River, where roughly two-thirds of our grain exports have historically been shipped on barges to the US Gulf, causing critical logistical issues.

At 3,766 km, the Mississippi River is the second-longest river in the US, just behind the Missouri River by a mere two kilometres.

Seven other rivers flow into the river nicknamed The Big Muddy: the Yukon River and Columbia River from Canada; the Milk River and Saint Lawrence River; and the Red River of the North, the last three of which begin in the US and flow into Canada; and the Colorado River and the Rio Grande, which start in the US and flow into or form a border with Mexico.

The land close to the river is one of the most fertile areas in the US. With so many farms nearby, the Mississippi River was rife with steamboats in the 19th and early 20th centuries, transporting industrial and agricultural goods to ports up and down.

However, we are sure that no one would be surprised to learn that the Mississippi River is experiencing drought-related issues.

For communities along the mouth of the river, drought has allowed saltwater from the Gulf of Mexico to enter into water supplies. Some communities have found that tap water was about 6.5 times saltier than the Environmental Protection Agency safely allows.

Drought causing lower water levels on the river has exposed sand bars, making travel trickier than it should be.

Most people know that the Mississippi River is the fictional home of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, two creations of author Samuel Clemens, whom the world better knows by his nom du plume, Mark Twain.

In the world of Mississippi River sailing—especially 200+ years ago—sailors needed to ensure the water was deep enough for their vessel to traverse to avoid running aground on a sandbar or the shallows.

As such, at the head of the vessel, a leadman would use a leaded weight and wire to ensure the river bottom was at least 12 feet down, allowing for safe passage.

Twelve feet is equal to two fathoms. One fathom is measured as the length of a man’s arms spread wide, approximately six feet.

Twain is an old way of saying “number two.”

So, “mark twain,” as uttered by the leadman to state the river’s depth, meant “mark two,” as in marking two fathoms.

For the author penning riverboat fantasy, Samuel Clemons could hardly be steered wrong by using Mark Twain as his pseudonym. And now you know.

In 2023, low water levels along certain parts of the Mississippi River caused trouble for larger sailing vessels, including those carrying crops destined for global markets.

Bottlenecks occurred as traffic backed up when large ships slowed down to carefully pass the river at Memphis, Tennessee, through Vicksburg, Mississippi, and down into Louisianna.

The only way to resolve the situation was to follow an old baseball adage: “Spahn and Sain and pray for rain,” a famous saying from the 1948 baseball season. That year’s Boston Braves team (later the Milwaukee Braves and now the Atlanta Braves) only had two good pitchers, so success hinged on getting rainouts after their best pitchers, Warren Spahn and Johnny Sain, pitched.

The Mississippi River needs rain, as do all of the other water sources discussed in the article. As noted many times, a lack of water depth is a huge factor in moving shipping vessels up and down waterways such as the Mississippi River. Rain—a lot of rain—would help.

Except that sometimes too much of a good thing becomes a bad thing.

When water levels are too high, waterways have their problems—problems that play even greater havoc with river traffic than when they’re too shallow—mostly because high water levels happen more frequently.

Research scientists examined the changing water levels along The Big Muddy from 1963 to 2020, examining how they affected commercial shipping.

Low water in the shipping channel sometimes stranded traffic in river sections. However, they found that high water levels forced operators to close locks and restrict shipping capacity, reflecting more challenging conditions for tugs pushing massive collections of river barges.

Regarding media coverage, there’s nothing better than photographic evidence of people walking across low levels of the river or seeing watercraft stranded high and dry where a year ago it was being used to traverse the waterway.

Despite the lack of social media impact via tell-all photography, the research scientists discovered that high-water level incidents had significantly more impact, particularly on sections of the Mississippi River south of St. Louis, Missouri.

Due to shipping restrictions imposed each year, the researchers determined that the upper Mississippi loses about 24 good days’ worth of shipping annually.

Between 2015 and 2019, the river saw some 400 million tons (406,418,763,520 kilograms) of goods move upon it, with 500 million tons (508,023,454,400 kg) each in 2017 and 2018.

Although slower than movement by truck, an average-sized 15-barge tow vessel carries as much cargo as 1,050 53-foot semi-trailers.

To safely move ships, the federal authorities looking after the Mississippi River maintain a nine-foot (2.7432 metres) deep shipping channel from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, north to Minneapolis, Minnesota. For ocean-going vessels, 45-foot (13.716 meters) deep channels are set for the ports between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Louisiana.

Like all human-controlled waterways, there are checks and balances in place. The Mississippi River waterway has 28 locks and dams and seven locks within the feeder of the Illinois River.

During high water issues on the Mississippi, traffic is diverted. For example, the Bonnet Carré Spillway north of New Orleans has been used eight times between 1931 and 2007. However, to show how much things are beginning to change due to high water levels, it was used seven times between 2008 and 2020.

Is the river changing? That’s what the researchers are trying to determine.


Unless you are the type of person who likes to skim ahead, you already know that too much and too little water within our major shipping waterways is causing delays affecting our agriculture industry—the “our” being anyone around the planet growing and raising goods through farming.

Traversing waters has its issues. There are pirates in the African and Middle Eastern regions, and Ukraine has to contend with the Russian forces invading Europe.

Even closer to home, low and high water levels along the St. Lawrence and Mississippi rivers are delaying our shipments to customers.

These delays result in penalties coming into play, which means less money overall for farmers.

Travelling along the Great Lakes and the Panama Canal is also causing delays due to water levels.

Will it get any better? In the Panama Canal, a newer lock system can retain and reuse about 60 percent of the water used. The older lock system loses nearly all the water it uses. Engineered updates to the lock system need to be put in place.

No simple or complex science is available on evaporation’s effect on the Mississippi River and St. Lawrence Seaway.

According to the International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board, the primary natural factors that affect the water levels—inflow from Lake Erie, precipitation, evaporation, runoff, and wind effects—cannot be controlled.

Only 2.5 percent of Earth’s water is freshwater, the kind we need to slake our thirst with and nearly all of that water is underground.

According to data from Colorado State University, nearly half of the 204 freshwater basins in the US may not be able to meet the monthly water demand by 2071. On the plus side, Canada still has enough water for its population—well, for now, anyway.

Canada is not immune to climate change. Much of the Canadian north has been afflicted by drought. British Columbia has seen hotter temperatures, less snow accumulation, faster snowmelt, glacier loss, and less rain. As the BC climate changes, it may see increased drought and water scarcity.

Related articles