Volatile weather keeping Northwest freight region on its toes (with forecast video)

Tractor-trailer heading toward cloudy, dark skies.

The Northwest freight region remains volatile as frequent snowstorms have slammed the high elevations of the Cascades and northern Rockies over the past several weeks. Heavy rainfall has soaked the lower elevations from time to time, and the instability is forecast to linger at least through this weekend. So shippers, carriers and brokers will need to remain vigilant and keep a watchful eye on the situation.

Impact on freight

One indication of a volatile market, especially during the winter, is the amount of reefer loads that carriers are turning down. These are called rejections. As weather turns colder in a given part of the country, shippers who would normally ship freight in dry vans request more and more reefers — climate-controlled trailers —  to keep temperature-sensitive freight, such as cosmetics, chemicals, water and beer, from freezing. According to FreightWaves market expert Zach Strickland, only 10-15% of trailers in the U.S. are reefers, so capacity is tight.


The latest data from FreightWaves SONAR, in the chart above, shows inbound and outbound reefer rejections for the Northwest (ROTRI.URNW, RITRI.URNW) have been decreasing the past two days. This could be in response to the recent warmer weather.

However, these rejection rates of 19-20%, represented by the blue and green lines, are high. They are also above their respective national averages, represented by the orange and purple lines. Typically, rejection rates above 10% result in freight rates on the spot market spiking well above contract rates — good for carriers, bad for shippers. Also, another round of colder weather and heavy snowfall may hit the Cascades on Saturday. So over the next few days this could send rejection rates back up, with spot rates following suit.

Weather outlook

The Northwest region will get a short breather from significant storms today. But from this evening through tomorrow afternoon scattered snowfall will return to the highest elevations of the Washington Cascades and the Rockies of northern Idaho. At the same time, rainfall will be the primary output from this storm, soaking western Washington state. This includes the Olympic Mountains,  Willapa Hills, Puget Lowland and the Cascades mainly below 6,000 feet.

For drivers, this means Snoqualmie Pass (I-90) will be wet later today through tomorrow, but Stevens Pass (US-2) will be snowy later today and tonight, then rainy and slushy tomorrow.

SONAR Critical Events: Thursday, Jan. 30, 2019, 10 a.m. EST. Ongoing Northwest winter storm threat.

A stronger storm on Saturday could bring back colder air plus widespread, heavy snowfall across the Cascades and northern Rockies; and snow levels could drop. Periods of heavy rainfall will return on Saturday to many of the same areas in western Washington mentioned earlier that will get wet tonight and tomorrow.

The downpours may cause rivers to rise rapidly, leading to localized flooding, mudslides and landslides along the I-5 and US-101 corridors. The National Weather Service has issued a flood watch that includes the Seattle metropolitan area.

Additional notes

Strong crosswinds will continue to give drivers a tough time in Southern California today, mainly through early afternoon. This includes the Los Angeles and San Diego metropolitan areas.

SONAR Critical Events: Thursday, Jan. 30, 2019, 10 a.m. EST. Southern California high wind threat.

Tomorrow, the threat lingers for inland areas such as Ontario, Riverside and San Bernardino, California, where northerly gusts could reach 50 mph on I-8 and I-10.

Have a great day, and be careful out there!