It's unquestionably winter now, and folks across the U.S. are expected to experience the season's wrath in the coming days. So what does that weather - complete with single-digit temperatures, wind and snow - mean for shipping freight?
What's the Current Weather Situation?
The forecast for the coming days is, in a word - freezing, throughout much of the country. The term "Arctic Blast" is being thrown around a lot to describe a weather pattern that's already underway. This flow began in Canada and is bringing with it below-zero temperatures to the Northwest U.S. and the Plains, with single digits in the Midwest along with wind and snow (and potential blizzard conditions) in some areas.
The National Weather Service puts chances of below zero wind chills across the vast majority of the country at 90% for the next seven days - that includes more southerly areas like New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas and even parts of Mississippi and Alabama.
"Numerous daily cold records are forecast," according to the NWS. The Great Lakes are expected to see rapid ice formation and potentially "feet" of lake effect snow could follow. The Northeast isn't spared either, both on the lake effect front and from the aforementioned weather pattern, as it is expected to continue that direction in a couple of days (as many weather patterns tend to do).
If you're planning to watch NFL playoff football this weekend, maybe lean towards doing it from home if you were considering a trip to Kansas City or Buffalo, where the "feels like" temperatures are expected to remain below zero throughout the games - and Buffalo could see snow, too.
This all follows a storm earlier in the week that had wintry travel conditions reported across 30 states and 750,000 square miles - with flooding also an after-effect.
What Does It Mean for Freight?
While freight transportation is able to keep moving through less than ideal conditions thanks to heavy duty equipment and dedicated professional operators, it isn't immune from weather extremes. Obviously, when the wrong type of weather occurs, roads and rails become impassable, causing inevitable delays. Union Pacific Railroad just shared this announcement related to that previous storm early in the week:
We'll see how this latest round plays out, but potential impacts to consider include:
Outdoor facility closures - whether due to ice, snow, wind chill or related factors, facilities like intermodal ramps, truck terminals, and loading docks that have heavy outdoor exposure may close for safety reasons
Road and rail closures - plenty of factors can block railroads or make them unsafe, and while roads technically don't close all that often, they can become difficult to impossible to drive in some circumstances, leading to diverted routes
Product freezing - when using dry containers or trailers, product could freeze with prolonged exposure to frigid temperatures, a risk that increases if loads are delayed
Intermodal limitations - high winds can keep trains from double-stacking containers, and rubber seals on hose couplings shrink in the cold, leading to shorter trains to compensate for air loss in the braking system
Truck issues - just as with any vehicle, trucks may have trouble starting in the worst of weather, or be stuck due to snow and ice - and trucks are also subject to frozen air lines
Reduced labor availability - even without official closures or equipment problems, drivers, rail workers, dockworkers and anyone else involved in freight movement could have trouble actually getting to work
Regardless, it's clear there are a number of impacts winter weather can have on shipping transportation, and any one of the above can lead to damages or delays for a variety of products - which can impact shippers, retailers and consumers.
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