Interactive: The 50 Largest Ports in the World | Innovation | Smithsonian
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Interactive: The 50 Largest Ports in the World

Investigate for yourself the mechanisms of global trade

Container-laden ships traverse countless supply chains from continent to continent, a method of transportation that accounts for more than 90 percent of the world trade by volume. The world’s top 50 largest ports see millions of Twenty-foot Equivalent Units each year, the name given multi-colored, cargo-carrying containers. Most containers are 20 feet long and eight feet wide, hence the term TEU. Such standardization is necessary so that containers can be efficiently stacked one of top of the other, a tight network visible for each port on this map.

A bird’s eye view of these ports and channels shows it’s clear China leads the way in TEUs; in fact, six of the world’s 10 busiest ports are located along the mainland. Since the 1990s, the tons of cargo passing through the Port of Shanghai has quadrupled. But nearly every port on the map exhibits a steady increase of traffic in the last decade, mirroring a trend in global seaborne trade[PDF], which has expanded by 3 percent every year since 1970, reaching 8.4 billion tons in 2010.

Various countries are gearing up to meet this demand by building new terminals to accommodate bigger ships than ever before. So too, are the channels these “mega vessels” will cruise through: a $5.25 billion expansion of the Panama Canal, which carries 5 percent of the world trade, will double capacity by 2015, allowing access for larger (and more) ships. East Coast ports are installing larger cranes and dredging channels to fit these ships, which are 2.5 times the capacity of the current largest ships that pass through the canal.

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