Southern snowfall possible in several states (with forecast video)

Plow clearing snowy road in North Carolina.

Heavy snowfall will hit parts of the Plains and southern Rockies today – places where truckers expect it during the winter. However, some drivers may run into snowfall across the Southeast tomorrow, in some places where it’s a bit unusual.

Setup and scenarios

A low pressure system is pumping abundant Gulf of Mexico moisture into the Southern states. This will result in rainfall the next two days that could hit flooded areas of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Heavy rain will also drench parts of Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina.

SONAR Critical Events: Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020; Southern snowfall

On the northern edge of this storm, temperatures may be cold enough to support snowfall Thursday morning and afternoon across the southern Appalachians, with a 2 to 6 inches of accumulation on mountain roads in eastern Tennessee, western North Carolina and upstate South Carolina, including the I-40 and I-81 corridors. Wet snow and slushy conditions could develop in the lower elevations of the southern Appalachians, in places like Knoxville and Chattanooga.

The forecast for Thursday night is tricky. The rest of North Carolina – including the Outer Banks – in addition to southern Virginia – including Virginia Beach – has a chance for 2 to 6 inches of snow sticking to the ground. This will only happen if surface temperatures get cold enough. The timing has to be just right, and it will be a close call. Drivers will need to be prepared for the possibility. If it pans out, delays in freight movement will be likely on I-40 and I-85 heading through Winston-Salem and Raleigh-Durham, as well as I-95 from from Rocky Mount into Virginia.

The other scenario is that these areas see wet snowfall, with not much accumulation on the roads. However, in either case, temperatures will be below freezing by Friday morning. So watch out for black ice!

Other areas of snowfall

Lake effect snowfall will persist in upstate New York over the next couple days, with 5 to 10 inches possible along parts of the I-90 and I-81 corridors in places like Syracuse, Oswego and Utica. The National Weather Service (NWS) has issued a Winter Storm Watch for these areas. These alerts are housed inside the FreightWaves SONAR Critical Events platform in the maps below.

SONAR Critical Events and radar: Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020; Upstate New York heavy lake effect snowfall

Moderate snowfall of 2 to 5 inches will accumulate through tonight and early Thursday from North Platte, Nebraska to Sioux City, Iowa, as well as from western Kansas to the I-40 corridor in the Texas Panhandle. Snow will be heavier in the mountains of northern New Mexico and south of I-70 in Colorado, where up to 9 inches could pile up in some locations. Gusty winds and blowing snow will also be issues for drivers. The NWS has issued a Winter Weather Advisory for these areas.

SONAR Critical Events and radar: Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020; Plains-southern Rockies snowfall

Freeze frame

Outbound reefer tender rejections (ROTRI) are high across freight markets in the northern Plains and upper Midwest, according to the latest SONAR data from FreightWaves on the map below. Elevated levels are indicated by the darker blue shading. This is probably because the demand for reefers is rising.

As temperatures drop in a given region during the winter, shippers that would normally ship freight in dry vans request more and more reefers. They do this in order to keep temperature-sensitive freight, such as cosmetics, chemicals, water and beer, from freezing and becoming damaged. 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. However, it’s estimated only 10-15% of trailers in the U.S. are reefers.

SONAR index ROTRI (far left); SONAR index FREEZE forecast for Feb. 19 & 20, 2020 (middle and far right)

Also on the map is the FREEZE index, which shows the daily average temperatures across the country. The coldest temperatures are shown in the dark and deep blues. It’s going to be quite cold across the northern Plains and upper Midwest the next two days, with nighttime lows at/below zero and daytime highs only in the single digits and teens. Shippers likely anticipated this, increasing the demand for reefer loads.

With demand so high, carriers have many options regarding which loads they can choose to accept. So they tend to reject more and more offered loads on the contract market, opting for higher rates that they can find on the spot market.