Answer to Map #78

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Answer: This week’s map was a proportional symbol map depicting the fifty ports that process the most cargo each year.

Ports are often measured in terms of a unit called the “twenty-foot equivalent unit,” or “TEU.” A standard shipping container used to be twenty feet long, so the volume of one container was one TEU. Now, most containers are forty feet long, but people still use TEUs. According to the World Shipping Council, the busiest port in the world in 2015 was Shanghai, which processed 36.54 million TEUs. That’s a lot of containers.

At the beginning of this century, the busiest port in the world was Rotterdam, the main port for the Netherlands (though it serves much of the rest of Europe as well). In 2015, Rotterdam had fallen to eleventh. The entire top ten list is comprised of ports in Asia: Shanghai, Singapore, Shenzhen, Ningbo, Hong Kong, Busan, Qingdao, Guangzhou, Dubai, and Tianjin.

Seven of those ten are in China. This map demonstrates just how much of the world’s manufacturing economy is now centered in Asia generally, and in China in particular.

Most of the dots on this map correspond to big cities. But there are a few big ports that grew in size because they were located on busy shipping routes. These include the ports of Colon and Balboa on either side of the Panama Canal and Port Said on the northern end of the Suez Canal. Each of these ports is used more for transferring containers from one ship to another, rather than as the origin or destination for shipments. Another port on this map that specializes in “transhipment” is the Malta Freeport on Malta in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea.

The largest port in the United States is the port of Los Angeles. In second place is the port of Long Beach, which is extremely close to the port of Los Angeles. Broadly speaking, both ports serve the same area—but they remain technically separate. The same cannot be said for the third largest port in the United States, which is the combined port of New York and New Jersey—officially, a single port despite spreading out over two states.

One interesting thing to ponder as you look at this map is what a similar map will look like two decades from now. Will the largest dots still be in East Asia? It’s hard to predict for sure!

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