Snowstorm returning to the Northwest this weekend

Plow truck clearing a snowy road.

Frequent rainstorms and snowstorms have slammed the Northwest this month, resulting in higher volatility in this freight region. Quiet weather days have been scarce, and another storm is on the way this weekend.

This storm may not have as much impact on travel and trucking as some of the others, but it could still have some effects. Stretches of interstate roads will become hazardous again, likely leading to some delays in freight movement.

Impact on freight

The Northwest Region, or Pacific Northwest (PNW) as it’s also known, is typically made up of backhaul markets year-round, meaning there’s usually more freight entering the region than leaving it. This can loosen capacity as more trucks get stuck waiting for loads to haul away. This results in carriers rejecting fewer loads since they have fewer freight options from which to choose.


This is evident in FreightWaves SONAR, which shows outbound tender volumes over the past week (OTVIW.URNW) have decreased. This is indicated by the light red shading on the map above. So there’s been a bit less freight leaving the region today than seven days ago.

Also, the headhaul index over the past week (HAULW.URNW) has dipped rather significantly, by almost 7.5 index points. This is represented by the region’s height on the map. HAUL is the difference between outbound volume and inbound volume. So more loads have been entering the PNW than leaving it.

During the winter, though, carriers often reject loads for a specific  reason — the weather. As temperatures drop, shippers who would normally ship freight in dry vans request more and more reefers to keep temperature-sensitive freight, such as cosmetics, chemicals, water and beer, from freezing. This is known as “protect from freeze,” or PFF. Reefers are climate-controlled trailers that allow drivers to set a desired temperature for the inside of the trailer. According to FreightWaves Market Expert Zach Strickland, only 10-15% of trailers in the U.S. are reefers. All the others are dry vans, which are not climate-controlled.

The SONAR chart below shows a pretty reliable inverse relationship between weather and reefer rejections in the PNW. When outside air temperatures get cold — especially well below freezing — and reefer demand increases, carriers reject more reefer loads due to tight capacity. When the weather warms up, the demand for reefers decreases and carriers can accept more loads. The example below shows actual daily average temperatures for King County, Washington, which includes the Snoqualmie area on Interstate 90 — an area often hit by cold weather and snowfall — and outbound tender rejections for reefers in the Northwest region.


Weather outlook

Rainfall across western Washington will be heavy at times Friday, even in the higher elevations. Localized flooding, landslides and mudslides are possible along the Interstate 5 and US-101 corridors.

Colder air will gradually change the rain to snow on Saturday. Meteorologists at the National Weather Service (NWS) in Seattle told FreightWaves that snow levels early tomorrow morning will be as low as 5,000 to 5,500 feet, dropping to 1,000 to 2,000 feet by the afternoon. Snowfall will continue through Sunday night. Look for totals of 14 to 18 inches at Stevens Pass (US-2), 6 to 8 inches at Snoqualmie Pass (I-90), and 6 to 8 inches at Hurricane Ridge in the Olympic Mountains.

SONAR Critical Events and radar: Friday, Jan. 31, 2019, 11 a.m. EST. Ongoing Northwest winter storm threat

Saturday night into Sunday, the snow will move toward the southeast across Oregon, northeastern California, northern Nevada, Idaho and the western half of Montana. Drivers may run into rough spots on Interstates 84 and 90.

Wind gusts of 50 to 60 mph will be a problem in Washington — on I-5 from Everett to the Canadian border; on US-101 from just north of Olympia to the Canadian border; and along the west coast from North Bay to the Canadian border.

Additional notes

High winds will be an issue in parts of the Missoula, Montana, market Friday and Saturday. Southwesterly gusts of 60 to 75 mph will make deadheading risky on I-90 and Interstate 15 in the Butte, Helena, Great Falls, Lewistown, Cut Bank and Havre areas. The NWS has issued a High Wind Warning, indicated by the yellow shading on the map directly below.

SONAR Critical Events: Friday, Jan. 31, 2019, 11 a.m. EST. Montana high wind threat

Temperatures will be quite low in the Northwest, Mountain Prairie and Midwest regions by early next week (FREEZE map below). This will likely drive up reefer demand quickly. Protect from freeze (PFF) procedures will be crucial.

SONAR ticker: FREEZE forecast for Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2019

Have a great day, a wonderful weekend, and be careful out there!