National Geographic : 1957 Jan
An Engineer's View of the Suez Canal Without Constant Dredging, This Vital Waterway Would Fill with Sand and Be Reclaimed by the Desert BY MAJ. GEN. GLEN E. EDGERTON, USA (RET.) T HE SUEZ CANAL-all in all the most influential change man has yet imposed on geography-is many things to many people, quite a few of them surprising. As the world well knows, the canal can cause international explosions. To Britain and western Europe it is a veritable life line, and to much of the world a short cut that makes countless products cheaper because they are more efficiently conveyed.* President Eisenhower has called the canal vital to the economy of the United States "indeed, to the economies of almost all of the countries of the world." You get an inkling of what this means when you see a 700-foot supertanker from Kuwait pumping out crude oil in Philadelphia; that one load, after refin ing, will fill up the gas tanks of about 300,000 automobiles. American imports through the canal-less than one million metric tons in 1938 but more than 11 million in 1955-include rubber and much of the manganese we need to harden steel. Europe counts on the canal for half its oil supply, or about 50 million gallons a day. Winds Sweep Desert Sand into Canal Less widely known is the fact that even zoologists take a professional interest in Suez. Thanks to the canal, creatures once at home in the Red Sea-especially the delicious swimming crab Portunus pelagicus-migrated to the Mediterranean Sea and are now caught there in large numbers. As if in repayment, Mediterranean sardines and sea horses swam the other way. The sea horses now abound in the Bitter Lakes, about two-thirds of the way to the Gulf of Suez. But to me as a member of the Commission Consultative Internationale des Travaux, the Suez Canal Company's international board of engineering advisers, the most interesting thing about this much-discussed waterway is that it is still being dug. Without continual dredging the canal would become a dry ditch. Winds constantly try to fill it with sand. Toward the end of November the wind is muknessa, the "broom." Near the end of March comes awa, the "cat's noise," and then comes the violent khamsin, the "wind of fifty days." The khamsin usually lasts only a few hours at a time, but it has been known to take paint off cars and force fine sand into camera shutters and wrist watches. During the worst week on record, in 1911, storms sprinkled into the canal 105 million cubic feet of sand, more than enough to make a pile the size of the Great Pyramid. Waves and water currents vie with the winds in this work of destruction. Ships' wakes eat insidiously at those beautifully straight banks (map and diagram, page 127). Dredges' Work Is Never Done In short, the Suez Canal poses one of the toughest maintenance problems of the century. And, in addition to maintenance, there must be improvement-to widen and deepen the channel as ships increase in size. Thus day in and day out, in normal times, dredges clank, men shovel muck, and engi neers pore over blueprints. In the last eighty years more than a billion and a half cubic feet of sand and rock have been dug out of the canal, about six times as much as the original excavation. An unceasing challenge to the engineer, the canal can provide an unforgettable first glimpse of a new world for the voyager on a cruise ship making a transit in tranquil times. * See, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE: "The Spotlight Swings to Suez," by W. Robert Moore, January, 1952; and "Suez Canal: Short Cut to Em pires," by Maynard Owen Williams, November, 1935. The Author General Edgerton is the only American on the board of eighteen experts appointed by the Suez Canal Company to advise on canal maintenance and improvement. He has been a member since 1952. Kansas-born Glen E. Edgerton was graduated from West Point at the head of his class in 1908 and be came an assistant engineer of the Panama Canal dur ing its construction. After brilliant service elsewhere, he returned to Panama in 1936 as engineer in charge of maintenance, and from 1940 to 1944 was Governor of the Panama Canal. Besides serving with distinction in two world wars, the versatile general has directed UNRRA operations in China, supervised the renovation of the White House, and served in such varied posts as chief engi neer of the Federal Power Commission and managing director and president of the Export-Import Bank. He is a director of the Panama Canal Company.