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What does La Nina mean for truckers this winter?

AskWaves: A look at where winter storms may impact drivers most

(Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

A La Nina climate pattern is emerging for the second consecutive winter in the U.S., according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center (CPC).

For carriers, this means their drivers may have to deal with a high number of delays in the Northwest and Great Lakes. Impacts would spread to shippers and customers.

Related: 5 states with toughest chain laws for truckers

During La Nina, strong trade winds push more warm Pacific water toward Asia. This produces upwelling off the west coast of the Americas, sending cooler water to the surface. These cooler waters push the jet stream, and hence more storms, northward.

Based on NOAA’s initial winter outlook issued in late October, wetter-than-average conditions are likely across a large portion of the Pacific Northwest, northern Rockies, Great Lakes, Ohio Valley and western Alaska.

Above-average temperatures are also favored in much of the Great Lakes and Ohio Valley, but this doesn’t mean cold snaps won’t happen. Jonathan Hunter, weather manager at Chattanooga, Tennessee-based Covenant Logistics (NASDAQ: CVLG), will watch the Great Lakes closely since a large number of his drivers travel through this region.

“When you have a lot of precipitation expected with freezing and thawing, those cycles are particularly difficult to deal with in the trucking industry,” Hunter told FreightWaves.

These temperature swings can lead to mechanical issues for drivers, as well as bumpy roads due to increasing numbers of cracks and potholes.

Hunter, who also manages Covenant’s Safety Review Group, holds driver town hall meetings of sorts to discuss season outlooks, especially for winter. Many Covenant drivers are from the South and may not have much experience on snowy or icy roads.

“You want to be aware of what’s out there and then, when it comes, and a lot of times it does, you already have a game plan ready to go,” Hunter explained.

He added that last season’s outlook was very helpful, predicting below-average temps in the middle of the country. A record-breaking deep freeze hit parts of the Plains in February, as well as areas of the Gulf Coast, standing truckers and delaying loads for days.

Related: Borderlands: Winter freeze could devastate Texas citrus industry

Along with above-average precipitation in the Northwest, below-average temperatures are projected. So, there may end up being plenty of snow as opposed to rain.

The winter outlook is for December 2021 through February 2022. Seasonal outlooks can help supply chain companies prepare for what’s likely to come in the months ahead, minimizing the weather’s impacts on surface freight flows and air cargo, as well as operations at intermodal ramps, ports and oil facilities.

In the outlook, Michael Farrar, director of the National Centers for Environmental Prediction, said CPC forecasters use the latest observing technologies and computer models to aid communities in preparing for inclement conditions.

NOAA experts also continue to monitor the widespread drought that has persisted across much of the Western half of the U.S. since late last year, keeping a close eye on the Southwest.

Here’s a more detailed breakdown.


• Warmer-than-average conditions are most likely across the southern and much of the eastern U.S. with the greatest likelihood of above-average temperatures in the Southeast.
• Below-average temperatures are favored for southeastern Alaska and the Pacific Northwest eastward to the northern Plains.
• The upper Mississippi Valley and far western Great Lakes areas have equal chances for below-, near- or above-average temperatures.

NOAA temperature outlook for winter 2021-2022. (Image: NOAA)

Precipitation (Rain and liquid equivalent from snow)

• The Pacific Northwest, northern Rockies, Great Lakes and parts of the Ohio Valley, as well as western Alaska have the greatest chances for wetter-than-average conditions.
• Drier-than-average conditions are favored in south-central Alaska, Southern California, the Southwest and the Southeast.
• The forecast for the remainder of the U.S. shows equal chances for below-, near- or above-average precipitation during winter months.

NOAA temperature outlook for winter 2021-2022. (Image: NOAA)


• Widespread severe to exceptional drought continues to dominate the Western half of the continental U.S., northern Plains and Missouri River Basin.
• Drought is forecast to persist and develop in the Southwest and southern Plains.
• The Pacific Northwest, Northern California, Upper Midwest and Hawaii are most likely to experience drought improvement.

NOAA temperature outlook for winter 2021-2022. (Image: NOAA)

NOAA’s outlooks don’t project seasonal snowfall accumulations since snow forecasts are generally not predictable more than a week in advance.

The CPC updates its three-month outlook each month. The next update will be available Nov. 19.

Click here for more FreightWaves articles by Nick Austin.

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F3: Future of Freight Festival


The second annual F3: Future of Freight Festival will be held in Chattanooga, “The Scenic City,” this November. F3 combines innovation and entertainment — featuring live demos, industry experts discussing freight market trends for 2024, afternoon networking events, and Grammy Award-winning musicians performing in the evenings amidst the cool Appalachian fall weather.

Nick Austin

Nick is a meteorologist with 20 years of forecasting and broadcasting experience. He was nominated for a Midsouth Emmy for his coverage during a 2008 western Tennessee tornado outbreak. He received his Bachelor of Science in Meteorology from Florida State University, as well as a Bachelor of Science in Management from the Georgia Tech. Nick is a member of the American Meteorological Society and National Weather Association. As a member of the weather team at WBBJ-TV in Jackson, Tennessee, Nick was nominated for a Mid-South Emmy for live coverage of a major tornado outbreak in February 2008. As part of the weather team at WRCB-TV in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Nick shared the Chattanooga Times-Free Press Best of the Best award for “Best Weather Team” eight consecutive years.