Baltimore Bridge Collapse Shows Fragility of Global Trade

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The destruction of a Baltimore bridge has crippled a busy port, adding to the strains confronting the global supply chain.

Even before an enormous container ship rammed a bridge in Baltimore in the early hours of Tuesday, sending the span hurtling into the Patapsco River, and halting cargo traffic at a major American port, there was ample reason to worry about the troubles dogging the global supply chain.

Between swirling geopolitical winds, the variables of climate change and continued disruptions resulting from the pandemic, the risks of depending on ships to carry goods around the planet were already conspicuous. The pitfalls of relying on factories across oceans to supply everyday items like clothing and critical wares like medical devices were at once vivid and unrelenting.

Off Yemen, Houthi rebels have been firing missiles at container ships in what they say is a show of solidarity with Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. That has forced ocean carriers to largely bypass the Suez Canal, the vital waterway linking Asia to Europe, and instead circumnavigate Africa — adding days and weeks to journeys, while forcing vessels to burn additional fuel.

In Central America, a dearth of rainfall, linked to climate change, has limited passage through the Panama Canal. That has impeded a crucial link between the Atlantic and the Pacific, delaying shipments to the East Coast of the United States from Asia.

These episodes have played out amid memories of another recent blow to commerce: the closing of the Suez Canal three years ago, when the container ship Ever Given hit the side of the waterway and got stuck. While the vessel sat, and social media filled with memes of modern life stopped, traffic halted for six days, freezing trade estimated at $10 billion a day.

Now the world has gained another visual encapsulation of globalization’s fragility through the abrupt and stunning elimination of a major bridge in an industrial city distinguished by its busy docks.

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