Geocolor Image in the eye of Hurricane Irma.

The Impact of Natural Disasters & Severe Weather on Freight Shipping

September 22, 2021

Inclement weather is one of the toughest challenges businesses in the shipping industry will face. Natural disasters affect the transportation of freight in a number of ways, from delaying your supply chain and raising costs, to extreme cases of lost freight and damaged goods.

Difficult to predict and potentially devastating to local areas your business may be serving, it’s crucial to understand how severe weather impacts each level of the shipping business and its customers. Here’s a look at common issues posed by natural disasters and how to mitigate the risk of shipping freight through dangerous circumstances.

Common Weather Patterns Impacting Freight Shipping

When discussing natural disasters affecting freight, flooding, hurricanes, snow and ice storms, earthquakes, wildfires, high winds, and tornadoes tend to be the most common examples of extreme weather conditions. These each tend to be regional in nature, but climate change has more extreme examples of radical weather patterns affecting unexpected areas more each year.

How Climate Change Affects Different Modes of Transportation

Extreme weather can wreak havoc on physical infrastructure, destroying roads, bridges, and tunnels and quickly disrupting normal shipping routes and speeds. In less extreme cases, weather patterns can still impact drivers with low visibility and clogged traffic on busy roadways and causing costly delays to normal shipping speeds.

Rising temperatures means more dangerous examples of inclement weather throughout regions of the U.S. unused to these particular challenges. This year alone, the country witnessed the pacific northwest’s 116-degree heat dome damage power lines and destroy other important local infrastructure with uncharacteristically high temperatures. Meanwhile, by definition, tens of millions living in New York City now reside in a subtropical climate zone — and thus lay in a more direct path of potential hurricanes and flooding.

Elevated temperatures and changing conditions nationwide directly impact OTR and rail transport with damage to asphalt, rails, and steel structures in addition to compromised bridges and tunnels.

Water transport has also been affected by changing climates, as droughts force alternative means of transportation in areas most affected by decreasing water levels and increased shipping costs. Ports also frequently bear the brunt of harsh storms and flooding when hurricanes and other extreme weather damage local areas.

Air transport is far from immune to the effects of natural disasters. Less-than-ideal flight conditions can easily sideline airfreight and dramatically disrupt sensitive supply chains, and the increased wear and tear on runways in cases of snow, thunderstorms, and potential tornado conditions further threaten costly delays and repairs.

How Severe Weather Affects Shippers

Rates: Weather can destroy even the most careful budgeting and well-made plans. It’s estimated that adverse weather conditions cost the shipping industry more than $3.5 billion annually. Trying to account for weather in the budgeting process is a difficult task, as the unpredictable nature of harsh winters and summer’s tropical storms introduces more extreme variables to the equation each year.

Capacity: Bad weather’s most obvious impact is in limiting the number of trucks on the road, and the similarly limited availability of usable trucks to ship goods over roadways to conduct normal operations. Getting stuck in a sudden blizzard or slowed weather-related traffic prevents trucks and truckers from replenishing the pool of available transportation resources. This means even weather patterns in regions outside of a business’ normal shipping lanes can still negatively impact transportation across the country.

Transit Times: Despite costly natural disasters continuing to increase in frequency each year, the speed at which customers expect their shipped goods has only accelerated. While shipping experts might understand the challenges posed by roughly 70% of the nation’s roads and an equal percentage of the U.S. population residing in commonly snowy regions, customer expectations fail to account for such challenges. Slowed transit times and delayed delivery are inevitable side effects of inclement weather and one that takes careful planning to maintain trust among both customers and retailers.

Fuel: While technically a sub-category you could file under higher costs, navigating the supply and demand of fuel throughout natural disasters is one of the most challenging tasks the transportation industry must face. From fluctuating oil prices, to damaged infrastructure preventing pumps’ ability to run properly, to refinery shutdowns and increased fuel prices, the fuel supply chain is an entity all its own. Managing shipping supply chains during adverse conditions is almost always accompanied by an equal challenge to manage changes in fuel prices and availability throughout the recovery process.

How Shippers Can Mitigate Risk During a Disaster

Natural disasters are aptly named — they don’t distinguish between businesses that are prepared and those that are not; they simply wreak havoc on local systems and leave transportation services to develop fast solutions. Often these solutions are the result of preparations laid well before disaster strikes, in preparation for potential worst-case scenarios. Here are three ways shippers can mitigate risks in cases of extreme weather:

Establish frequent communication and transparency with your people and your goods.

Handling adverse weather conditions requires a fast reaction time, which can only exist in businesses with efficient top-to-bottom communication practices. Effectively communicating changes in plans is a huge time and money-saver, but can only be done if your supply chain has complete transparency at every phase of the transportation process.

Staying connected with your people and your goods-in-transit is critical — knowing precisely where your goods are located, what conditions they require to arrive at their destination safely, and what changes can be made to accommodate poor weather will facilitate faster and more effective decision-making when faced with a disaster.

Identify commonly affected areas, then make a plan.

While harsh weather is near-impossible to predict in advance, some areas exist in zones likely to experience hurricanes, tornadoes, flooding, or ice storms more regularly than the rest of the country. Companies doing business with states along the Gulf Coast will want to establish alternative routes in cases of emergency and communicate these clearly even when conditions appear mild.

Businesses shipping to the west coast know the potential damage summer wildfire season can have on transportation and should create similarly detailed backup plans in case of emergency. While companies can’t anticipate every potential shipping challenge, preparing for scenarios common to each shipping region can save time and logistical headaches when disaster does strike.

Know who your backup carriers are and remember to diversify.

The ability to simply be flexible helps mitigate damage to your business when disaster strikes. If your business limits itself to a small core of carriers, it risks losing the ability to ship anything anywhere until the weather impacting your business ultimately subsides. This can mark a major loss for your business and put a strain on important relationships moving forward with both carriers and customers.

Mitigating risk during natural disasters is all about having backup plans ready to go — and that might mean having backup partners ready to quickly move your products away from potential danger.

Weatherproof Your Supply Chain Needs with First Call Logistics

At First Call, we’re committed to supporting your supply chain and optimizing freight spend year-round. To learn more about our technology, market expertise, and extensive carrier network, Contact Us today.

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