A Geographic Fact Many Find Surprising

One of my odd niche interests is that I am fascinated by the Panama Canal and its construction.  I probably have read 10 books on the topic.  My kids know never to ask anything remotely about it because they will get a 1-hour lecture.

So here is your fun fact that all but other canal aficionados will find surprising:  The Atlantic entrance to the Panama Canal is west of the Pacific entrance.  The canal actually runs largely north-south rather than east-west as we imagine.

The other thing most people have wrong in their minds when they think about the canal is that they picture ships traveling through a narrow excavation.  Pictures of boats are almost always at the locks or at the Culebra Cut.  But for most of the route the sort of median view is of a ship sailing across a peaceful lake in the middle of a rain forest.  The canal was made by damming two rivers and creating two lakes (one of them enormous) that spread out to cover most of the isthmus.  The digging was then to connect the two lakes through the spine of the country (the Culebra cut) and to build flights of locks at each end up and down from the lakes.  Thinking of the canal as a bridge over the land rather than a cut is a more accurate picture.  This design solved the twin problems of too much digging (we'd still probably be digging in the Culebra Cut if people had insisted on make the canal at sea level, a vision that was surprisingly hard to get past) and the Chagres River which could become an incredible torrent in the rainy season and flood out everything in its path.



  1. TransHat:

    Didn't know about the orientation, I save that for the next cocktail party. Along the same vain, does everyone know that Canada is south of Detroit?

  2. STW:

    I'm in Montana and enjoy giving a friend in Nova Scotia a hard time about almost living in the Confederacy he's so south of me.

  3. Matthew Slyfield:

    Only a small part of Canada is south of Detroit, not the whole thing.

  4. irandom419:

    Fortunately, the crack is fixed and those boats will continue to enjoy the lake.


  5. Dave Boz:

    Other interesting (or not) geographic trivia...

    -Paris, France is 150 miles north of Duluth MN
    -Reno NV is west of Los Angeles

  6. Loog Moog:

    I have always wondered why they need locks to raise and lower the ships. Why can't they let the Atlantic and Pacific and the lake waters run together and soon they would find their own (common) level ? I can't imagine that either ocean would rise or lower very much.

  7. Q46:

    Locks are required to deal with changes in level of terrain... for example, take a waterway over a hill... not difference in sea levels. The alternative to locks would be tunnels or very deep excavations, or a meandering route going round obstacles, all of which would technically be more difficulty and considerably more expensive to construct.

  8. markm:

    Here's a sea level canal made by a deep cut:


    This is only 70 feet wide, and the cut appears to be several hundred feet deep. Two problems make it not useful for commercial shipping. It was built at the end o fhe 19th century, when freighters tended to be small; now it's too narrow for most ships, even if traffic is regulated to go only one way at a time. And those steep cliffs often let loose a rockslide that blocks the canal entirely. Even if a commercial ship is narrow enough to use the canal, any hard delivery date has to assume a detour around the Peloponnese peninsula.