If you’re part of the shipping industry that deals with oceanic transport and trade, you’ve most likely heard about the various shipping lanes that can help you seamlessly get from point A to point B and complete your delivery. But, do you know all of the major ocean shipping lanes that play a key part in global trade?
Did you know that the shipping industry transports around 11 billion tons of freight over the ocean each year? This accounts for roughly 80% of all products that trade on a global level, and it’s easy to see why ocean shipping lanes are so vitally important. These shipping lanes are both natural and man-made, and the purpose of them is to streamline the shipping process and get items to their destinations as quickly and efficiently as possible.
No matter if you’re trying to get items from the United States to the United Kingdom, or from China or Japan to South America, shipping lanes are instrumental. We’re going to outline the major ocean shipping lanes that play a role in global trade. This way, you’ll be able to see which lanes are the most popular and the busiest in the world.
1. Bosphorus Strait
First up on our list of the busiest and most popular shipping lanes is Turkey’s Bosphorus Strait. This strait is responsible for linking the Marmara Sea and the Black Sea. Turkey has had control of this strait since 1936. It’s a boundary between Asia and Europe, and it’s essential for military, commercial, and oil trade. There are currently two bridges spanning this strait. They include the Bosphorus Bridge and the Faith Sultan Mehmed. The first bridge has been completed since 1973, and the second bridge has been in operation since 1988. There is also a tunnel that workers finished in 2013.
The Bosphorus Strait does have travel restrictions and size limitations placed on it, but it’s normal for things like cargo ships, chemical tankers, bulk carriers, livestock vessels, liquid petroleum gas tankers, and container ships to pass through each day. The strait stretches along 19 miles with the largest width of 2.3 miles across being at the northernmost entrance. The most narrow point is just 2,450 feet across, and this is at the Anadoluhisarı and Rumelihisarı Ottoman fortifications. The depth can also vary from 408 feet at the deepest point up to 120 feet at the most shallow. Roughly 132 vessels come through each day. The strait is also heavily fished by locals.
2. Panama Canal
The Panama Canal is a man-made ocean shipping lane that is under the ownership of the Republic of Panama. The narrow Isthmus of Panama is responsible for connecting the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean. Its main job is to reduce transit time for vessels traveling between the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. Completed in 1914, the Panama Canal allows vessels to have a straight connecting point between the oceans instead of making them sail around Cape Horn and South America’s southern tip. This canal cuts between 2,000 to 8,000 nautical miles off of every vessel’s trip that passes through.
The Panama Canal runs along 50 miles, and it’s roughly 10 miles wide. This canal is widely regarded to be one of the most strategic man-made shipping lanes in the world. It takes roughly 10 hours to completely pass through the Panama Canal from start to finish. You do have to pay tolls to get through. In 2016, the Panama Canal underwent expansion to allow larger vessels up to 14,000 TEUs to pass through the three lock system that makes up the canal. Roughly 14,000 vessels pass through the Panama Canal each year, and they carry everything from refrigerated and canned foods to lumber, chemicals, machinery, and fats or vegetable oils.
3. Saint Lawrence Seaway
The Saint Lawrence Seaway is thought to be the single most important shipping lane in the United States. This shipping lane directly connects the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean and the system comes together to form the world’s longest deep-raft navigation system. The Saint Lawrence Seaway opened for vessels to travel in 1954. Since then, over 2.5 billion tons of cargo have traveled on this shipping lane going to and from over 50 different nations. You can expect to spend roughly eight and a half days traveling from the Atlantic Ocean to Duluth, Minnesota and the Great Lakes.
This Seaway extends a huge 2,300 miles through North America. It’s a direct connection point for Quebec, Ontario, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and New York. You can divide it into three large sections and it has over 9,500 smaller rivers and lakes that run to and from the main body of the Seaway. The various locks located on the Seaway help to raise the water depth to appropriate levels for larger vessels to make it through. Over 300,000 pounds of materials pass over the Saint Lawrence Seaway each year. They include things like agricultural products, clothing, machinery, lumber, dry commodities, and more.
4. Strait of Hormuz
The Strait of Hormuz or the Strait of Ormuz plays a central role in connecting the Persian Gulf with the Gulf of Oman. This strait features two different travel lanes that can easily accommodate outbound and inbound vessels. The two travel lanes have a wide two-mile buffer between them to prevent accidental crossings. Inside the Strait of Hormuz, you’ll find the three islands of Qeshm, Hormuz, and Hengam. This shipping lane is critical for the oil trade and vessels that visit the collecting ports around the Persian Gulf must pass through here to continue their journeys.
Since this shipping lane provides the only sea passage for vessels from the Persian Gulf to the open ocean, it is one of the most critical choke points in the world. The narrowest portion of this strait is 21 nautical miles across. Roughly 14 oil tankers pass through here each day carrying roughly 18.5 million barrels of oil. This works out to around 30% of the total oil consumption in the world. The oil goes through this shipping lane and the vessels mainly deliver their cargo to India, Japan, China, Singapore, and South Korea. There was one collision in 2009 where roughly 15 sailors received injuries.
5. Strait of Malacca
The Strait of Malacca is instrumental in connecting the South China Sea in the Pacific Ocean to the Andaman Sea in the Indian Ocean. This is the second busiest waterway in the world. It runs between the island of Sumatra (Indonesia), West Malaysia, and southern Thailand. The total area of the Strait of Malacca is roughly 25,000 square miles. You’ll notice that it has a distinct funnel shape. The more narrow portion to the south is only 40 miles wide while the wider portion to the north is roughly 155 miles wide. This strait was originally a critical trading port for Malaysia that eventually turned into the Strait of Malacca.
This strait is the shortest route between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean at 550 miles. The water depths vary wildly from 90 and 120 feet in the southern portion of the shipping lane up to 650 feet at the deepest point. This shipping lane plays a pivotal role when it comes to linking various economies including Malaysia, India, China, Singapore, Japan, Indonesia, South Korea, and Taiwan. It is estimated that more than 83,000 vessels use this shipping lane each and every year to deliver and transport cargo. It’s a major oil choke point, and it’s also popular for transporting palm oil, coal, liquefied natural gas, and Indonesian coffee.
6. Suez Canal
Originally opening in 1869, the Suez Canal is now one of the most important shipping lanes in the world. This is a man-made shipping route. It flows over 120 miles and it plays an essential role in connecting the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean. You travel through the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea when you take the Suez Canal route. If the Suez Canal didn’t exist, vessels would have to add around 24 days to their travel times and go around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope to transport their goods. This adds up to roughly 3,700 miles of travel, and it can result in severe transport delays.
To get through the canal, it takes around 16 hours from start to finish. It’s one of the most used shipping lanes in the world, and approximately 100 vessels make their way through it each day. The recent expansions to the Suez Canal now allow vessels up to 223 feet high, 66 feet deep, and 254 feet wide carrying 240,000 deadweight tons to safely and efficiently transverse the canal. There are no two-way lanes here because it’s too narrow. Instead, vessels must go through two southbound and one northbound convey per 24 hours. It’s important for the oil and freight industries.
7. The Danish Straits
The Danish Straits work to seamlessly connect the Baltic Sea to the North Sea. The straits accomplish this by going through the Skagerrak Strait and the Kattegat Sea. There is a system of three channels that form the Danish Straits. These channels are the Little Belt, the Great Belt, and the Oresund. On a historical level, the Danish Straits were originally the international waterways of Denmark. However, Denmark lost territorial disputes, and as a result, the Oresund is co-owned and shared by both Germany and Sweden. In 1857, the Copenhagen Convention declared all of the Danish Straits as international waterways, and they remain international waterways to date.
The Great Belt Channel is the widest of the three channels in the Danish Straits. This makes it an important shipping lane for large or oversized vessels. Russia uses the Danish Straits heavily to transport oil to the rest of Europe. It’s estimated that millions of barrels of crude oil make their way through this shipping lane every single day. This makes it extremely important to the oil industry. It’s also popular with freight vessels and for transporting dry goods to and from Russia to Europe. The Danish Straits are vital to Europe’s petroleum trade. If something happens at one of the chokepoints, it can lead to significant delays and rising prices on a worldwide scale.
8. The English Channel
Our last major shipping lane is the English Channel or simply ‘The Channel’. The English Channel claims the title as the busiest shipping lane in the world, and it’s been in operation since the 17th century. It’s a narrow arm of the Atlantic Ocean that plays a pivotal role in separating the northern coast of France from the southern coast of England. The Channel tapers east until it reaches the junction with the Strait of Dover and the North Sea. Over the centuries, the English Channel has played a significant role with modern Europe’s emergence of nation states.
The Channel stretches across 350 miles. It ranges between 20 miles wide at the most narrow point and 150 miles across at the widest point. The depth also varies drastically from around 150 feet deep down to 400 feet deep, and it can handle over 500 vessels a day traveling through it. Hundreds of vessels come through carrying a variety of cargo including grains, oil, steel, and minerals. This makes it critical to the European shipping network’s success. Since there is such a high volume of vessels coming and going through this shipping lane each day, there are sophisticated safeguards in place, and this includes tracking all of the ships by radar.
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