Winter Whirlwind: How to Manage Shipping Capacity Crunch in Stormy Seasons

by LJM Group

Each year, as the first storms of winter cross the earth, logistics managers and shipping professionals brace for a familiar foe: capacity constraints. Blizzards, sleet, and freezing temperatures wreak havoc on transportation networks, squeezing available space and sending shipping costs into a polar vortex. With the right strategies, logistics managers can weather the winter shipping capacity crunch and keep business on track.

The Logistics of Weather: From Telegraph Wires to X Feeds

Logistics, shipping, and business decisions often hinge on one critical factor: knowing the future of weather. While traditional forecasting has long been of value to business managers, a new wave of information is emerging, powered by smartphones, social media, and the collective eyes of millions. This is generally referred to as Distributed Digital Weather Reporting (DDWR), and it’s revolutionizing how we understand and prepare for upcoming shipping and logistics operations.

The concept isn’t entirely new.  Thomas Jefferson maintained and shared an almost unbroken record of weather observations until 1816. In 1849, Joseph Henry, the first Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, envisioned a network of citizen scientists and created the Meteorological Project, which enlisted over 600 volunteers across North America, the Caribbean, and beyond. Armed with basic instruments, they meticulously recorded weather data, sharing it via existing technology: the telegraph. This collective or “crowdsourced” effort culminated in the first national weather map, disseminated daily, laying the groundwork for the US National Weather Service.

Today, the telegraph has morphed into social media, with smartphones used as miniature weather stations, and where the “citizen scientist” label has become common. In addition to the National Weather Service, Platforms like X (formerly Twitter) and dedicated apps like PressureNet and Weather Underground are vast data repositories with real-time weather observations, photos, and firsthand accounts. This decentralized network gathers data with near-instantaneous granularity, painting a hyper-local picture of weather conditions no traditional station can match.

As most logistics managers know, a sudden snowstorm can greatly impact shipping routes. Traditional forecasts might offer broad strokes, but multiple, witnessed reports can pinpoint the storm’s intensity, road closures, and even alternative paths, offering invaluable information for shipping managers tasked with ensuring timely deliveries. Such an environment requires real-time, dynamic risk assessment, empowering businesses to make informed decisions and minimize disruptions. This collaborative spirit isn’t just about efficiency; it’s about community resilience. For example, a typhoon rapidly approaching a coastal town can be instantly reported, where individual descriptions and lay weather reports can serve as an early warning system, enabling swift evacuations and disaster preparedness. This integration of collective knowledge empowers individuals and communities to weather the storm, both literally and figuratively.

Blizzard Bites

Winter weather disrupts transportation in a variety of ways:

  • Road Closures: Snow and ice cripple road networks, snarling truck traffic and delaying deliveries. Most managers remember the notorious 2021 “Texas Freeze,” where highway blockages sent essential supplies spiraling in price.
  • Port Slowdowns: Icy harbors and stormy seas hinder cargo loading and unloading, leading to backed-up containers and missed shipping windows.
  • Air Travel Disruptions: Blizzards and freezing temperatures ground flights, causing shipment delays and missed connections. The December 2022 snowstorm in the US Midwest resulted in over 15,000 flight cancellations, disrupting holiday deliveries.

The Vancouver Bomb Cyclone and Its Ripple Effect on Shipping

A well-studied example of localized weather impact, the “bomb cyclone” that devastated the Port of Vancouver in 2021 (with effects reaching into 2022) demonstrates the need for comprehensive, real-time weather data.  In October, a rapid intensification of atmospheric pressure slammed into the Vancouver, British Columbia region, unleashing record-breaking snowfall and hurricane-force winds. Creating a logistical nightmare, it initially paralyzed the region’s shipping industry and exposed vulnerabilities in global supply chains. Container terminals were buried under meters of snow, rendering equipment inoperable. Roads leading to and from the port became impassable, severing vital landslide connections. Cruise ship arrivals were canceled, stranding passengers and disrupting tourism.

Elsewhere, cargo destined for Canadian and American markets piled up at the paralyzed port, leading to delays and cancellations. Businesses relying on just-in-time deliveries scrambled to find alternative routes, often at greatly inflated costs. The price of essential goods, already on the rise due to global factors, spiked further due to transportation disruptions.

Out of Chaos Comes Orders (for Shipped Goods)

Amidst the chaos, lessons in logistics resilience and innovation arose. One major logistics company, faced with stranded cargo at the port, chartered a fleet of snowmobiles to ferry time-sensitive medical supplies to hospitals across British Columbia. A local grocery chain, unable to receive its usual deliveries, partnered with smaller trucking firms to source goods from regional suppliers, ensuring shelves remained stocked. Managers were reminded of the importance of agility and adaptability in the face of unforeseen disruptions, where companies with diverse transportation networks and strong relationships with local partners were better equipped to weather the storm. The Vancouver event served as a stark reminder of the interdependence of weather, global supply chains, and the fragility of just-in-time delivery models.

Lessons Learned

The Vancouver cyclone, Texas Freeze and other weather events offer valuable lessons for the shipping industry and its stakeholders. The need for robust infrastructure that can withstand extreme weather events is paramount. Diversifying transportation options and building redundancy into supply chains will be crucial in mitigating future disruptions. Investing in real-time data analytics and communication platforms can ensure transparency and swift decision-making during crises. Proactive preparation is key to mitigating weather disruptions, with proven strategies that can help navigate capacity issues. These include:

  • Diversify Shipping Channels: Don’t rely solely on ground transportation. Explore alternative options like air freight for urgent shipments or rail for bulkier cargo. Remember, a multi-modal approach can spread the risk and keep your supply chain flowing.
  • Build Strong Carrier Relationships: Forge close partnerships with reliable Carriers who prioritize winter preparedness. Leverage LJM to negotiate pre-booking options and secure dedicated capacity during peak storm periods. Maersk, for example, partnered with their established trucking companies for critical delivery during the 2021 “Texas Freeze,” exemplifying the benefits of strong carrier relationships.
  • Optimize Inventory Management: Implement just-in-time inventory practices to minimize the amount of goods in transit during winter months. This reduces exposure to potential delays and frees up valuable shipping capacity.
  • Embrace Technology: Leverage real-time weather tracking and shipment visibility tools to anticipate disruptions and reroute shipments as needed. Investing in technologies like AI, blockchain, and pervasive GPS can help secure transparent communication across the supply chain and can also enhance winter preparedness.
  • Winterproof the Capacity Crunch: Global food giant Nestlé faced a winter logistics nightmare in 2019 when major blizzards occurred across Europe. By pre-positioning inventory closer to retail outlets and utilizing alternative transportation modes like rail, Nestlé minimized disruptions and ensured timely deliveries of essential food items. This proactive approach clearly demonstrated the power of strategic planning in mitigating winter’s impact.

The Challenges of Instant Knowledge

Today, data quality and verification are crucial to shipping and logistics, requiring robust algorithms and community moderation, but the benefits are undeniable. Distributed local weather reporting is not an outdated methodology; it’s a transformative force still shaping the future of weather preparedness and risk management. As Thomas Jefferson once declared, “Knowledge is power.”

In the realm of weather, the power lies not just in data, but in the collective wisdom of the crowd, harnessed through innovative tools and shared through the digital town square. Ultimately, when you check a weather app, you’re not just accessing information, you’re tapping into a global network of logistics professionals and citizen scientists, continuing the legacy of collaboration that began with a spark of inspiration and a click of a telegraph key.


Postelwait, J. Texas’ Big Freeze: The 2021 Power Crisis and the Lessons Learned One Year Later. January 2022.  Beyond Data: Thomas Jefferson and the Telegraph.

NWS. History of the National Weather Service.

NOAA, History Archives. Nestlé Reports Full-Year Results for 2019. February 2020.

International Maritime Organization (IMO).

Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA).

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

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