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Traffic Halted: Massive Container Ship Runs Aground In Suez Canal


You know those local traffic reports you hear sometimes on the radio? Imagine what you'd be hearing if your local radio station was at the Suez Canal. One day you hear there's a ship blocking both lanes of one of the world's most important trade routes. And the next day, the radio tells you the blockage is still there. A container ship the length of four football fields ran aground and turned sideways. More than 100 other ships are caught in the bottleneck. NPR's Jackie Northam is covering this story. Jackie, good morning.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How did this happen?

NORTHAM: Well, it's still unclear exactly what happened. One analyst I spoke with said, often, when these very large ships are navigating through narrow waters, their propellers create a current which can tug, pull them to the side. You know, also, there was a ferocious sandstorm at the time with very high winds. And it's thought the captain and the crew had poor visibility. The bow of the ship became stuck in the bank. Its stern kept moving. And now it's sitting sideways across the canal. And that has stopped traffic on this vital shipping route.

INSKEEP: Seems like it's pretty hard to move it.

NORTHAM: (Laughter) Yes. Well, you're right. You know, this ship is called the Ever Given. It's enormous. It's about a quarter of a mile long. And it weighs in at about 200,000 tons. They've been using powerful tugboats to try and pull it from the canal bank. But that hasn't worked. And they're already starting to dig around the bow to try and dislodge it. Ultimately, they'll want to lift the ship higher in the water to make it easier to move. So they'll have to lighten its load. And they may drain the ballast water and fuel. They may have to start removing the ship containers that are on board. And, you know, keep in mind, Steve, that this is a ship that can carry 20,000 containers.

INSKEEP: And, of course, it's going between some of the most important points for trade on the globe. If you look at the map, the Suez Canal - I mean, the reason they dug it in the 19th century in the first place is because it is the quickest way to get from Europe, where there's a lot of trade, to India and China. So what are the implications of it being blocked?

NORTHAM: Well, you're right. I mean, this is a vital waterway, you know, for tankers carrying oil and gas, but also container ships. And that's everything from electronics to running shoes. About 12% of global trade passes through this waterway. So it's important. I mean, I spoke with Lars Jensen. He's the CEO of Copenhagen-based SeaIntelligence Consulting. And he said global supply chains were already out of kilter as sort of a ripple effect of the pandemic. And the situation in the Suez right now will certainly not help.

LARS JENSEN: Every day that the Suez Canal here is closed, effectively, what it does is it takes vessels and containers out of circulation. So you're taking capacity out of a market where you are already short on capacity.

NORTHAM: So Steve, you know, this bottle in the - bottleneck in the Suez Canal could create delays and higher costs. And again, that's, you know, you might see it in your supermarket. You might see it when you go online, certainly. And that's going to put more pressure on the global supply chain. We're into our third day now. And there are more and more ships arriving in the area waiting to get through the Suez Canal.

INSKEEP: Wow. Well, next time I'm stuck in a traffic jam, I'll just try to remind myself it could be worse.

NORTHAM: You know, that's one thing to keep in mind. Yes.

INSKEEP: Jackie, thanks so much.

NORTHAM: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Jackie Northam. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.