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Since Columbus' 'discovery' of the New World, it was inevitable that the history of the area that is now called the Republic of Panama would be tied with that of other nations. The Isthmus, at places barely fifty miles wide, links the Western Hemisphere and separates the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The result of this natural phenomenon of nature is that the history and culture of the people of the Republic of Panama has been integral with that of other nations, including the United States of America.

One of the first to recognize the commercial potential of a canal across the isthmus was the Spanish explorer Vasco Nunez de Balboa, the 'discoverer' of the Pacific Ocean. After serious consideration, Spain's King Charles I rejected a Canal proposal, concluding that "if God wanted the oceans to meet He would have built the canal Himself."'

In the early 1880's, La Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interoceanique, a French company headed by Count Ferdinand de Lesseps, arrived on the Isthmus to begin construction of a canal that would connect the oceans. Seemingly insurmountable health problems due to the tropical climate resulted in an overwhelming number of deaths. This, combined with the economic failure of the Company, led to the early capitulation of the French Canal construction effort. The French sold the rights to construct a canal to the United States in 1903.

The United States, and in particular the U.S. Army Medical Corps and the Corps of Engineers, eventually conquered and tamed the diseases which had destroyed so many lives and was able to complete an engineering feat which has yet to be rivaled. Following the completion of the canal, a large number of U.S. Citizens remained on the Isthmus to operate, maintain and defend it.

By noon, December 31, 1999, full and final proprietorship of the Panama Canal and its support and defense systems passed to the Republic of Panama, and a unique American experience came to an end. The Panama Canal agreement required the US to leave at the end of 1999. Southern Command started pulling out troops in 1994. A treaty implementation plan called for a gradual U.S. drawdown to 7,500 troops by the end of 1995, 5,600 by 1998 and zero by the end of 1999. The United States also turned over about 4,700 buildings and about 93,000 acres to the Panamanian government. By 1996 more than 1,000 buildings and 22,000 acres had been turned over. The School of the Americas moved to Fort Benning, Ga., and the Panamanian jungle had started reclaiming the now unused complex.

The military gradually vacated Quarry Heights, Fort Clayton, Fort Kobbe, Howard Air Force Base, Albrook Air Force Station and Rodman Naval Station on the Pacific side, and Fort Sherman and Galeta Island on the Atlantic side. These military facilities were well-tended oases of red tiled roofs, white tropical buildings, manicured lawns and palm tree-lined streets. The American enclaves were in lush green countryside edged by jungle-covered mountains, and in the distance lies the sea. The humid, tropical climate translates into high maintenance costs for the military tenants.

Twenty million years ago ocean covered the area where Panama is today. There was a gap between the continents of North and South America through which the waters of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans flowed freely. Beneath the surface, two plates of the Earth's crust were slowly colliding into one another, forcing the Pacific Plate to slide slowly under the Caribbean Plate. The pressure and heat caused by this collision led to the formation of underwater volcanoes, some of which grew tall enough to break the surface of the ocean and form islands as early as 15 million years ago. More and more volcanic islands filled in the area over the next several million years. Meanwhile, the movement of the two tectonic plates was also pushing up the sea floor, eventually forcing some areas above sea level.

Over time, massive amounts of sediment (sand, soil, and mud) were peeled away from North and South America by strong ocean currents and fed through the gaps between the newly forming islands. Little by little, over millions of years, the sediment deposits added to the islands until the gaps were completely filled. By about 3 million years ago, an isthmus had formed between North and South America. (An "isthmus" is a narrow strip of land, with water on either side, that connects two larger bodies of land.)

Scientists believe the formation of the Isthmus of Panama is one of the most important geologic events to happen on Earth in the last 60 million years. Even though it is only a tiny sliver of land, relative to the sizes of continents, the Isthmus of Panama had an enormous impact on Earth's climate and its environment. By shutting down the flow of water between the two oceans, the land bridge re-routed currents in both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Atlantic currents were forced northward, and eventually settled into a new current pattern that we call the Gulf Stream today. With warm Caribbean waters flowing toward the northeast Atlantic, the climate of northwestern Europe grew warmer. Winters there would be as much as 10 degrees C colder in winter without the transport of heat from the Gulf Stream. The Atlantic, no longer mingling with the Pacific, also grew saltier. Each of these changes helped establish the global ocean circulation pattern we see today. In short, the Isthmus of Panama directly and indirectly influenced ocean and atmospheric circulation patterns, which regulated patterns of rainfall, which in turn sculpted landscapes.

The formation of the Isthmus of Panama also played a major role in biodiversity on our world. The bridge made it easier for animals and plants to migrate between the continents. For instance, in North America today, the opossum, armadillo, and porcupine all trace back to ancestors that came across the land bridge from South America. Likewise, the ancestors of bears, cats, dogs, horses, llamas, and raccoons all made the trek south across the isthmus.


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