The costly global crisis unfolding in the Suez Canal could last for weeks as desperate efforts to free a stuck cargo ship ramp up.
The 400m long, 200,000-tonne Ever Given container ship is blocking transit in both directions like "a beached whale", through the vital shipping route.
The narrow strait that connects the Mediterranean with the Red Sea serves as a vital gateway for the movement of goods between Europe and Asia.
Eight tugboats are currently working to move the vessel, the Suez Canal Authority (SCA) said, after it got stuck diagonally across the single-lane southern stretch of the canal on Tuesday morning (local time) amid high winds and a dust storm which hampered visibility.
The ship, which is operated by Taiwanese shipping company Evergreen, was bound for Rotterdam when it got stuck.
"We can't exclude it might take weeks, depending on the situation," Peter Berdowski, CEO of Dutch company Boskalis, which is trying to free the ship, told Dutch TV show Nieuwsuur.
Tracking data revealed a total of 206 large container ships – including tankers carrying oil and gas and bulk vessels hauling grain – have backed up at either end of the canal, creating one of the worst shipping jams seen in years.
Expert Sal Mercogliano said the effect on world trade, including Covid-19 vaccine supply, could be "catastrophic".
"Because of Covid, you know how badly things have slowed down with moving goods, and now all of a sudden you add this and you're going to have a delay getting goods to markets," he told BBC radio's Today programme.
"We're talking about vaccines, manufacturing goods, food, everything. It's potential catastrophic delays.
"Ten per cent of the world's trade goes through the Suez Canal and you average about 50 vessels a day and we're in the second day of not being able to move any vessels."
After allowing some vessels to enter the canal in the hope the blockage could be cleared, the SCA said it had temporarily suspended all traffic on Thursday (local time).
The ship's GPS shows only minor changes to its position over the past 24 hours, Reuters reported.
"It is like an enormous beached whale. It's an enormous weight on the sand," Berdowski said.
"We might have to work with a combination of reducing the weight by removing containers, oil and water from the ship, tug boats and dredging of sand."
According to Bloomberg, 600,000 barrels of crude oil flow from the Middle East to Europe and the US via the Suez Canal every single day.
Individual vessel owners who cannot wait for the Ever Given to be painstakingly refloated now have a tough choice on their hands.
They can travel around the southern tip of Africa, adding at least 10 days to their voyage time.
Part of the problem with attempts to shift the massive ship – so long it measures front to back the same distance from bottom to top of the Empire State Building – is the sheer scale of it.
According to researchers from the University of Plymouth, it could take "potentially a lot of time" before the vessel is unwedged from its position.
Ranjith Raja, head of MENA oil & shipping at Refinitiv, said "we've never seen anything like this before".
"It's likely that resulting congestion will take several days to weeks to clear as it is expected to have a ripple effect on the other convoys, schedules and global markets."