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Riskpulse: Polar Vortex returns in February

Riskpulse’s map shows how weather risks will move across space next month.

Arctic temperatures and winter storms will move from the Northwest to the Southeast in February

The continental United States had a bit of a respite from the historically low temperatures we felt around New Year’s and the winter storms we suffered in the weeks following. But according to the meteorologists at Riskpulse, a leading weather risk analytics firm, February will bring a repeat of the extreme cold air and winter storms we just went through. On January 19, Riskpulse released its February Weather Outlook and explained why the nasty weather is coming back.

Just as the earlier period of cold temperatures and winter storms were caused by the polar vortex drifting down over North America, right now Siberia is experiencing those Arctic-cold temperatures, because the PV has drifted back in the other direction. The so-called Siberian cold pool is freezing out much of northern Asia, with temperatures ranging from -58F to -76F, conditions that are extreme even for Siberia. But when the polar vortex is unstable at the beginning of the winter, it tends to remain unstable through the whole season. The report predicted that, “This pool will be moving around during the next two weeks with some of it moving into East Asia while another part of it crosses the Pole and fows into western North America.”

FreightWaves spoke to Jon Davis, chief meteorologist at Riskpulse, about the outlook report. “For the next couple of weeks, the severe arctic cold is done across the nation,” Davis said. “Furthermore, no major winter storms for the highly populated areas in the southern and eastern U.S. Hence, it looks like a really quiet period for most areas from the end of January at least through the first few days of February. We don’t, however, expect this to continue! There are numerous signals (variables) that suggest we’re going into another period of arctic cold and winter storms. We had a two to three week period of major impacts from those two factors at the start of the year, and all indications point to the fact that we’re headed toward another one.”

Riskpulse expects February to be a volatile month as the new cold phase works its way across the lower 48 from the Pacific Northwest down in a southeasterly direction, eventually bringing cold temperatures and winter storm risks to the Gulf Coast by the end of the month. “The return of Arctic air will first occur in the western U.S. (Rockies, western Plains) and will likely occur during the first week of the month,” the report stated. “Subsequent Arctic air masses will plunge into the central and finally eastern U.S. during the middle few weeks of the month,” it continued. 

“I would think of it this way: early in the month, the main disruptions are in the far northern portions of the country, especially in the PNW and northern Rockies. This ‘disruption zone’  eased southward across the nation during February, finally reaching the southern and eastern half of the U.S. by the back half of the month. In other words, the northwest quadrant of the country will be the first area to feel the impacts while the  southeast quadrant is the final area to be impacted by Arctic cold and winter storms,” said Davis. 

Davis went on to identify specific verticals that were disrupted by the last cycle of Arctic cold air to move through North America. “We had pretty significant issues from a food and beverage standpoint,” said Davis. “In periods of extreme cold, the companies that didn’t take precautions saw significant losses. Freeze damage in many sectors and many portions of the country. Part is due to the extreme cold, part is due to the extreme southward distribution of the cold. Houston had its coldest temperatures since the 1990s… it was in areas of the country that aren’t particularly used to this that had major difficulties. Even Chicago and New York saw damage to beverage and food, whether it was in-truck, in facilities, or wherever.”

Beyond the risk to goods themselves, heavier-than-normal snowfalls could clog interstate and rail traffic as they did earlier this month, and Arctic temperatures will contribute to icy conditions in all affected areas. FreightWaves reported on the previous PV cycle’s effects on the truckload spot market and we expect similar sudden, sharp, but possibly temporary spikes in spot rates in affected lanes. Prices could be elevated for a month or more as the weather, and then the backed up freight, works its way through the country. 

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John Paul Hampstead

John Paul conducts research on multimodal freight markets and holds a Ph.D. in English literature from the University of Michigan. Prior to building a research team at FreightWaves, JP spent two years on the editorial side covering trucking markets, freight brokerage, and M&A.