Weekend blizzard still on track to slam western US (with forecast video)

Caltrans truck on snowy California highway.

After a nearly three-month break from major winter storms, the weather will change dramatically in the Sierra Nevada this weekend. A couple of strong cold fronts will track across the region from Saturday through early next week, producing a multi-day storm that will inevitably delay freight flows between the West Coast and the Denver and Salt Lake City markets.

SONAR Critical Events and radar: Friday, Mar. 13, 2020, 10 a.m. EST; Western snowstorms

Periods of heavy snowfall and blizzard conditions will begin tomorrow, lasting through at least Monday, March 16. In the northern Sierra Nevada, total accumulations of up to five feet are possible in elevations above 4,000 feet; up to 15 inches in the Mt. Shasta area along the Interstate 5 corridor. The central Sierras, including Yosemite National Park, could see up to 36 inches of snowfall, while high elevations in the greater Reno-Carson City area could see up to 10 inches. Up to 18 inches could pile up in Lake Tahoe at lake level, with two to four feet in the surrounding high elevations.

Some of the forecast snowfall totals are higher than when FreightWaves first reported on the potential storms yesterday. But meteorologist Alex Hoon with the National Weather Service (NWS) office in Reno, Nevada told FreightWaves at that time that storms of this magnitude happen fairly often this time of the year, even though the first day of spring is next week.

“It’s not unusual for us to get big storms in the Sierra in March,” Hoon said. “Actually, this is very common for us to see snow in the Sierra all the way through March into April and even into May.”

But Hoon added that March is typically the “last hoorah” for major snowstorms as they become less intense and less frequent during the spring.

Hoon is looking forward to this upcoming multi-day storm because the Sierra Nevada range has been very dry recently. This will be the first significant snowfall since December 2019, and the region has been in a drought since late January 2020, and is now in a Moderate Drought.

“We need that snowpack. It’s very important for our water supply, not only for Nevada but for California as well,” Hoon stated.

But travel will become risky for truckers on Interstate 80, US-50 and US-395 from Reno to Lake Tahoe and Truckee. Donner Pass will likely become an especially dangerous spot.

Besides the heavy snowfall, winds will gust between 40 and 60 mph, creating whiteout conditions at times. At a minimum, Hoon said he expects the California Highway Patrol (CHP) to post chain controls.

“Depending on if the snow plows can keep up with the heavy snowfall rates and the heavy winds and the low visibility…the California Highway Patrol may close the road [I-80],” Hoon said.

With the storms in the forecast since earlier this week, carriers have been rejecting more loads from the Reno and Stockton markets, the two markets that straddle the Sierra Nevada. A possible explanation for the rejections is carriers probably don’t want to send drivers into a potential blizzard to pick up loads.


FreightWaves SONAR shows the outbound tender rejection rates for Stockton (OTRI.SCK) and Reno (OTRI.RNO) have increased to 4.47% and 7.33%, respectively, over the past several days. These are the percentages of loads electronically offered by shippers that carriers are turning down. Higher rejections rates, especially above 7.0%, usually push spot rates above contract rates.

Other winter weather impact areas

Strong winter storms will also hit the Cascades and northern Rockies this weekend. The heaviest snowfall in the Washington Cascades, totaling 6 to 12 inches in some areas, will occur tonight through Saturday morning. Stevens Pass could pick up 5 to 10 inches, and even the city of Spokane could see up to 3 inches with gusts of 45 mph.

Much of Montana, mainly along and north of I-90, as well as the mountains of northern Idaho will see periods of heavy snowfall and gusty winds from today through the weekend. Up to 7 inches could pile up at Lookout Pass on the Idaho-Montana border, with gusts reaching 35 mph.

Have a great day, and be careful out there!