What is a canal?

A canal is a manmade waterway that allows boats and ships to pass from one body of water to another.

The Gowanus canal at Carroll Street where some of the highest sediment contamination is found

The Gowanus Canal was built in the mid-1800s and once served as a major commercial route to New York Harbor. A variety of industries that operated along its banks released contaminants into the canal. Sewer overflows also contribute to the pollution, which negatively impacts fishing and recreation for nearby residents. NOAA is working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the City of New York to assess the damage and propose ways to mitigate it.

A canal is a manmade waterway that allows boats and ships to pass from one body of water to another. Canals are also used to transport water for irrigation and other human uses. While the advent of more efficient forms of transportation has reduced the need for canals, they still play a vital role as conduits for transportation and fostering global commerce.

There are two types of canals: waterways and aqueducts. Waterways are the navigable parts of a body of water, and can be located within a bay or open sea, can connect two or more waterbodies, or may even form networks within a city. Aqueducts are used exclusively to transport water for drinking, agriculture, and hydroelectric power.

The word "canal" derives from the Old French word chanel, which means “channel.” The oldest known canals are aqueducts built in Mesopotamia thousands of years ago. Since then, canals have played an important role in connecting cultures and facilitating commerce.

The Panama Canal, which connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, was expanded in 2016 to accommodate modern large-scale cargo ships. NOAA played a role in ensuring that the shipment of goods through the larger canal would remain safe and efficient. NOAA’s Navigation Response Teams assisted the Panama Canal Authority by participating in exercises to ensure that evacuation plans and safety precautions were operational in the event of an emergency. NOAA also installed its Physical Oceanographic Real-Time System (PORTS®) system at PortMiami, allowing super-sized ships that pass through the Panama Canal to safely and efficiently enter the busy U.S. seaport.

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Venice and Amsterdam are Europe’s most famous canal cities, but did you know that the U.S. has a few of its own? More than just a popular spring break destination, Fort Lauderdale, Florida is also called the “Venice of America.” And the aptly named Venice Beach, California, boasts its own historic canal district.


Last updated: 07/30/18
Author: NOAA
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