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Mapping shipping lanes: shipping traffic around the world

Every year, thousands of ships travel around the world, carrying everything from passengers to consumer goods like wheat and oil.

But just how busy be Global sea routes, and where are the major shipping lanes in the world? This map is by Adam Symington It paints a holistic picture of maritime traffic in the world by highlighting the intensity of maritime traffic around the world.

Uses data from International Monetary Fund (IMF) in partnership with the World Bank, as part of the International Monetary Fund’s Global Maritime Trade Monitoring System.

The data spans from January 2015 to February 2021 and includes five different types of vessels: merchant vessels, fishing vessels, oil and gas, passenger vessels, and pleasure vessels.

Overview of the main shipping lanes

If you take a look at the map, you will find some distinct areas where the traffic is highly concentrated.

These high-density areas are the world’s major shipping lanes. Syminton provided some zoomed in photos of these waterways in detail, so let’s dive in:

Panama Canal

The Panama Canal is a man-made waterway connecting the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. For ships traveling from the east to west coast of the United States, this route bypasses the more treacherous Cape Horn at the tip of South America or the Arctic Bering Strait, cutting nearly 8,000 nautical miles – or 21 days of their journey.

In 2021, approximately 516.7 million tons of cargo passed through the main waterway, according to Ricorte Vasquez, responsible for the Panama Canal Authority.

Strait of Malacca

Maritime traffic density map along the Strait of Malacca

This sea lane is the fastest link between the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean, passing through the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra. It is a thin waterway – the channel at its narrowest point is less than 1.9 miles wide. Approximately 70,000 ships pass through this strait every year.

danish straits

Map of maritime traffic density along the Danish Strait

The Danish Straits connect the North Sea with the Baltic Sea, and include three channels: the Oresund River, the Great Belt, and the Little Belt.

The Danish Strait is known to be a major passageway for Russian oil exports – which, despite sanctions and boycotts against Russian oil, has remained strong throughout 2022 so far.

Suez Canal

Map of marine traffic density along the Suez Canal

This 120-mile artificial waterway runs through Egypt and connects the Mediterranean with the Red Sea, providing ships traveling between Asia and Europe a long corridor around Africa. More than 20,600 ships traveled through the canal in 2021.

Last year, the canal made headlines after a 1,312-foot container ship called Ever Given was stuck in the canal for six days, causing massive traffic jams and halting billions of dollars worth of goods.

Strait of Hormuz

Marine traffic density map along the Strait of Hormuz

This 615-mile waterway connects the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman and eventually drains into the Arabian Sea. In 2020, the canal transported nearly 18 million barrels of oil per day.

English Channel

Map of maritime traffic density along the English Channel

Located between England and France, the 350-mile-long English Channel connects the North Sea with the Atlantic Ocean. Nearly 500 ships travel through the canal every day, making it one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.

Some of the major European rivers also clearly appear in these visualizations, including the Thames in the United Kingdom, the Seine in France, and the Meuse (or Mass) that flows through Belgium and the Netherlands.

Impact of COVID-19 on shipping

Although these maps show the passage of six years of maritime traffic, it is important to remember that many sectors have been negatively affected by the global pandemic, and maritime trade is no exception. In 2020, global sea shipments fell 3.8% to 10.65 billion tons.

While the decline was not as steep as expected, and production is expected to continue growing throughout 2022, some regions are still feeling the effects of COVID-19 restrictions.

For example, in March 2022, the volume of freight at the port of Shanghai was halted due to the strict lockdowns in Shanghai, due to the outbreak of COVID-19. Traffic has been affected for several months, and while operations have rebounded, marine traffic in the area remains congested.

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