Canals from the Pacific to the Caribbean

Tim Brown discusses my comment about the Nicaragua Canal question; This discussion covers only one type of canal, the best know and flashiest kind that allow ocean-going ships to cross between two seas, in this case between the Pacific and Caribbean.Examples of this type are, of course, the existing Panama and Suez canals, the Corinthian and proposed canals across, for example, the Kra Peninsula.  It does not cover so-called "dry canals" (one is actually operating across Guatemala), ro-ros (roll on-roll off of containers) LASH (lighters aboard ship), slurry canals (one is operating in Costa Rica moving mostly crude petroleum) , railroad canals (one is planned across the isthmus of Tehuantepec in Mexico).
On the Nicaragua canal specifically, there was never any talk of cutting a new canal through Nicaragua "using the nuclear digging method" for the very simple reason that a Nicaragua canal can be built without any major excavations at all. While on the map the logical route would seem to enter Lake Nicaragua between Rivas and San Juan del Sur it is not the most attractive one because it would require the building of lock. The better Nicaragua route, because it can be built as a sea level canal without any locks at all, goes from the Caribbean at San Juan del Norte up the San Juan River to Lake Nicaragua at a point near San Carlos, then north across that lake to Tipitapa, through Tipitapa to Lake Managua, then from Lake Managua across the plains east of Chinandega to the Gulf of Fonseca. Under the provision of the Bryan-Chamorro Treaty the US held exclusive rights to building this canal, including rights to build a naval base on the Cosiguina Peninsula at the Gulf of Fonseca end and also had a perpetual lease on Greater and Lesser Corn Islands at the Caribbean end. While much longer, there are well protected anchorages at several points.  Unlike Gatun in Panama that is having capacity problems, Lake Nicaragua has ample water. Also, unlike Gatun, it could probably hold most of the world's ships with room to spare.  There are, however, major political problems involved as the San Juan River  marks the Nicaragua-Costa Rica border and the Gulf of Fonseca involves Honduran and Salvadoran interests, not just those of Nicaragua.
Panama did not even raise the issue of the Nicaragua Canal alternative during the Panama Canal Treaty negotiations.  It was the Carter administration that did so and also, without Panama even asking, unilaterally decided to abrogate Wilson's Bryan-Chamorro Treaty of 1914 and also to renounce all rights not just to the Cosiguina Peninsula base and Greater and Lesser Corn Islands options but also all US rights to build a canal anywhere in the region.  As a result, we do not have the right to build a canal across any of the several other possible routes at any other point between Mexico and southern Colombia, such as one across Guatemala (requiring massive excavations), Honduras-El Salvador (the same and an engineering nightmare), Costa Rica (ditto) or southern Panama crossing the Darien. There is also a possible route across northern Colombia just south of Panama.  I understand that the Darien option is the most viable of all non-Nicaragua routes and the only one where any serious engineering thought was given to the use of the "nuclear digging method", and that Japan and China have both explored building one there.
As to why on earth Carter insisted on unilaterally abrogating the Bryan -Chamorro Treaty just before the Sandinistas took over Nicaragua, I will leave that up to your imaginations.

Randy Black rectifiesae statement by Tim Brown, who said: On the Nicaragua canal specifically, there was never any talk of cutting a new canal through Nicaragua "using the nuclear digging method" for the very simple reason that a Nicaragua canal can be built without any major excavations at all.
Actually, the concept of a nuclear-dug canal in Nicaragua was discussed by the United States in the 60s. I recall studying the matter in high school.
I found the following information on the matter:
In the 1960s, a sea-level canal between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans was studied. Over 25 routes were examined, with five of them in closer detail:

The shortest of these routes would have required more than 100 nuclear explosions. Others would have needed 250 and more bombs with a total yield of around 120Megatons.

Tim Brown writes: Randy Black may well be correct as to the five routes he names.  But I was talking about the one he does not name from San Juan  del Norte to the Gulf of Fonseca via Nicaragua's two large lakes.
which is the only one can be built economically without the use of truly massive digging methods such as nuclear devices in order to dig them down to sea level by making cuts that would make those of the Panama Canal look like child's play.. 
On the "Greytown to Salinas Bay" route, Greytown is just the old name for today's San Juan del Norte. As I understand it, the main problem with this route is the mean elevation above sea level of Lake Nicaragua (also known as Cocibolco), 31.4 meters or about 100 feet and its average annual high water level of 34 meters.  Cocibolco drains naturally only into the Atlanticm not the Pacific.When I discussed this in Managua with engineers from Harza who were studying a Nicaragua LASH Canal idea in the 1970s, they explained that cutting a canal from Cocibolco to the Pacific at the narrowest point between them was not the better optionm given the difference between the maximum elevation of Cocibolco, the mean low tide at its point of Pacific egress and the very short distance between the two because locks would be needed to regulate the flow of the canal so that it would be usable at all times and so that the lake would not drain unnaturally towards the Pacific at a volume and speed that could make navigation upstream from the Pacific to the lake extremely difficult if not impossible much of the time. Also, the volume of drainage needed to be controlled lest this drainage reduce the mean level of Colcibolco and therefore the flow of the San Juan River, the lake's only natural outlet, to below the levels required to support navigation on it.
On the other hand, by connecting Cocibolco with Xolotlan (Lake Managua) via the Tipitapa River and then from Xolotlan north through Chinandega and eastward via the San Juan River a real sea level gravity fed canal is possible. Not just that, but the Chinandega plains could also be served by a related irrigation system that would boost Nicaraguan agricultural production dramatically. In fact, this latter options is being considered even without a canal.

Ronald Hilton 2005


last updated: April 13, 2005