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Weird Science: Giant Ships and Canals

Advances in technology have allowed naval architects and engineers to build larger and larger ships over time. Large ships can carry more cargo and are generally a more cost-efficient form of transportation.



SF Fig. 8.5. Size comparisons are shown between several of the world’s largest ships as of 2015.

Image courtesy of Delphine Ménard, Wikimedia Commons

The world’s largest ships currently in use are transport container ships approximately 400 m long and 60 m wide. However, these giant ships are not the largest ever built. The largest ship ever built was the Seawise Giant (also known as the Knock Nevis). It measured 458 m long and 70 m wide (SF Fig. 8.5) and was used as an oil tanker from 1979–2010. The Mærsk Mc-Kinney Møller is an extremely large container ship still in operation. It has the ability to transport up to 18,270 containers. The Vale Brasil is an ore carrier owned by a Brazilian mining company. Its large capacity and low speed engine make it one of the most efficient vessels currently in service. As of 2015, the Allure of the Seas was the largest passenger ship ever built. The massive passenger ship boasts an impressive 25 restaurants and bars, a 1300 seat theater, a casino, and an ice skating rink. The United States Navy aircraft carrier USS Enterprise still holds the record as the longest naval vessel ever built. It was the world’s first nuclear powered aircraft carrier and served from 1962–2012.



SF Fig. 8.6. The US Navy battleship USS Missouri very narrowly passes through the Panama Canal in 1945 en route to the Pacific ocean basin from New York City.

Image courtesy of US Navy, adapted from Wikimedia Commons

One important limitation on the size of a vessel is the size of the canals they must pass through during voyages (SF Fig. 8.6). Several major canals allow for ships to pass between distant ocean basins. The Panama Canal connects the Atlantic and Pacific ocean basins by cutting through a narrow strip of land in Panama. Before the Panama Canal was completed in 1914, ships traveling between Atlantic and Pacific ocean basins needed to sail around the southern tip of South America. Similarly, the Suez Canal links the Mediterranean Sea and Red Sea. The Saint Lawrence Seaway links Montreal, Canada, to Lake Superior.


The largest modern ships (SF Fig. 8.5) cannot pass through the Panama Canal. Only ships less than 295 m in length and 32 m in width can fit through the tightest parts of the canal.


Question Set
  1. The largest ship ever built was the Seawise Giant. Are ships like this still being built? Why or why not?
  2. What do you think the advantages and disadvantages are to building one large ship, rather than multiple smaller ships?
  3. Polar ice has retreated due to melting caused by climate change, opening routes that may be used for ship travel. How do you think the availability of new shipping routes will affect the global shipping industry?
Exploring Our Fluid Earth, a product of the Curriculum Research & Development Group (CRDG), College of Education. University of Hawaii, 2011. This document may be freely reproduced and distributed for non-profit educational purposes.