British Columbia floods disrupt supply chains from Canada to U.S. Midwest

British Columbia floods disrupt supply chains from Canada to U.S. Midwest

November 23, 2021

On November 17, the regional government of British Columbia declared a provincial state of emergency to mitigate disruptions to the movement of goods and supplies amid widespread damages to the region’s transportation network caused by severe flooding and landslides across parts of the province.

Described as a once-in-a-century weather event, a so-called atmospheric river – a corridor of concentrated moisture in the atmosphere that transports water from tropical regions towards the poles – brought record-breaking rainfall to British Columbia between November 13 and November 15. The storm made many of the province’s highways impassable, cut off two major rail lines connecting British Columbia with the rest of the country and the U.S. Midwest, and disrupted operations at Canada’s busiest seaport.

Authorities were quick to confirm that the clean-up and repairs of the road and rail networks will be a top priority in the weeks to come, while the Canadian military has since been called in to further aid the recovery efforts. However, given the extensive damages and access difficulties in many parts of the region, prolonged disruptions as well as subsequent knock-on effects to road, rail and ocean freight movement in and out of British Columbia are likely to persist for several weeks. 

Movement at Canada’s busiest seaport comes to a halt due to adverse weather conditions

As the largest seaport in Canada, and one of the busiest ports along the West Coast of North America, the Port of Vancouver in British Columbia usually handles around CAD 550 million (USD 440 million; EUR 385 million) worth of cargo daily, including goods like automobiles, consumer goods, and commodities. However, like other major seaports along the coast, the port has been struggling to keep pace with the record-breaking cargo volumes seen throughout much of 2021, in particular after persistent operational disruptions in the summer months when a heatwave and widespread wildfires impacted the movement of goods in and out of the port for several weeks. As a result, average waiting times for vessels berthing at the Port of Vancouver have remained high in recent months, already standing at 7 days just before the storm reached British Columbia.  

Port of Vancouver Waiting Times
Figure 1: Waiting times at the Port of Vancouver from July to November 2021; Source: Everstream Analytics.

Although the port’s marine terminals were reportedly able to continue operations, all rail and truck movements at the port had to be suspended due to widespread flooding across Metro Vancouver and the Fraser Valley. While smaller cargo loads are often moved by truck, the affected rail lines operated by Canadian Pacific Railway (CP) and Canadian National Railway (CN) serve as Vancouver’s main transport corridors, moving the bulk of all incoming and outgoing cargo at the port. Vancouver offers direct intermodal services to the U.S. Midwest and beyond, and the volume of shipments from and to the U.S. Midwest, including Chicago, has steadily increased over the past few years.

As of November 23, both carriers were still repairing the extensive damages to sections of their networks. Although CP has announced that it may be able to reopen the railway tracks between Kamloops, British Columbia, and Vancouver as early as November 23, CN expects clean-up and repair works to continue into the coming week. In the days following the arrival of the storm, both carriers had confirmed that the tracks between Vancouver and Kamloops were temporarily impassable due to washouts and landslides. CP also said that a track outage near the city of Hope, and disruptions along the route between Spences Bridge and Falls Creek, all located in British Columbia, have been found. As a result of these damages, the company reportedly tried to divert some of its affected trains towards Portland, Oregon in the United States, but it was not disclosed how much cargo could be rerouted. Meanwhile, CN confirmed that all of its northbound and eastbound traffic from Vancouver as well as sections of the network near Yale, British Columbia, were disrupted due to the flooding.

As a result, a range of shipments, including marine fuel, coal, grain, potash and sulfur remains stuck in the Vancouver corridor since November 17, with the number of delayed rail cars transporting grain jumping from around 950 to more than 1,500 within just one day shortly after all transport came to a standstill. Operational disruptions have also been reported in the automotive sector, with all inbound shipments of finished vehicles halted after rail traffic was cut off. Mining company Teck Resources Limited, which produces metallurgical coal, copper concentrate and molybdenum concentrate in Southern British Columbia, reported disruptions to its logistics operations between export terminals on the Pacific Coast, forcing the company to divert some of its trains to the Port of Prince Rupert, located roughly 1,000 kilometers north of Vancouver.

Flooding and landslides affect all major road connections in the Lower Mainland

The atmospheric river phenomenon has caused severe flooding that led to widespread infrastructure damages, bridge collapses, and highway closures in British Columbia. All four major highways (1, 3, 5, 99) that connect the Lower Mainland with the rest of the province were affected by landslides and flooding, which temporarily cut off crucial road connections needed by the transportation industry.

Among the worst affected routes have been Highway 1 in the Fraser Canyon, the so-called Coquihalla Highway – Highway 5 from Hope to Merritt, and Highway 8 from Merritt to Spences Bridge. In addition, a major landslide across Highway 7 at Ruby Creek paralyzed freight transport between the Lower Mainland and the British Columbia interior.

Figure 2: Selection of most impacted highways in British Columbia and status as of November 22. Source: gov.bv.ca.
Highway Status as of November 22 Non-essential travel restricted highway segment
Highway 1 (Trans Canada) CLOSED at Abbotsford (between McCallum and Yale roads) and at Fraser Canyon (between Hope and Spences Bridge) From Home as far as Boothroyd
Highway 3 (Crowsnest) REOPENED for single lane alternating traffic between Hope and Princeton From the junction of highways 5 and 3 in Hope to the west entrance to Princeton
Highway 5 (Coquihalla) CLOSED from Hope to Merritt
Highway 7 REOPENED at all sections to two lanes From the junction of highways 7 and 9 in Agassiz to the junction of highways 7 and 1 in Hope
Highway 8 CLOSED from Merritt to Spences Bridge
Highway 99 REOPENED between Pemberton and Lillooet From the junction of Highway 99 and Lillooet River Road to the BC Hydro Seton Lake Campsite access in Lillooet
Highway 11 CLOSED from Hazelwood Drive to Valley Road

As of November 21, a number of previously blocked roads, including Highway 99, Highway 3, and Highway 7, have reopened to essential travel only until at least December 1. Essential travel includes transportation of essential goods and supplies, the transport of livestock, agricultural or seafood products, emergency and rescue operations, evacuations for medical reasons, and other urgent travel.

More rain in the coming days likely to prolong recovery efforts

Heavy rainfall is expected to continue across British Columbia this week, which could lead to further severe flooding and complicate ongoing cleaning efforts and the resumption of rail and road traffic. Government agencies have warned that adverse weather conditions could affect other parts of the province in the coming days as well, including the area between Prince Rupert and Ocean Falls in Central British Columbia. More rainfall is also expected in the Lower Mainland area on November 24 and 25, which could total 20-50 millimetres.

British Columbia forecast
Figure 3: Total precipitation forecast for British Columbia during the next 15 days. Source: Everstream Analytics.

Looking ahead, the jet stream pattern that is responsible for the flooding issues across British Columbia will persist during the next few weeks into December. The end result will be heavy rainfall in lower elevations, heavy snowfall in higher elevations and very strong winds along the coast as well as in some inland locations. Figure 3 depicts the total precipitation forecast during the next 15 days. The western portion of British Columbia will receive amounts of 6-12 inches (150-300 mm) during this 15-day period. The heavy rain and snow totals and strong winds will likely hamper recovery efforts to the infrastructure that is in the process of being repaired.  

Disruptions to rail, road and ocean freight likely to intensify existing congestion and delays

The storm and the regionwide disruptions to road, rail and ocean freight came in the midst of the high season for agricultural exports for the Port of Vancouver, and on top of the already growing congestion issues at the port. As a result, the congestion issues at its container terminals and yard spaces are expected to worsen in the weeks to come, and additional berthing delays and rising anchorage demand should be expected as well. Within days of the storm, around 40 vessels were already waiting outside the port for anchor, a number that could continue to rise if port operations remain disrupted.

These ocean freight disruptions will likely be felt particularly strongly in the agricultural and automotive sectors that depend heavily on the Port of Vancouver to move their goods in and out of the region. As one of the world’s largest grain exporters, disruptions to Canada’s busiest seaport could lead to notable impacts on global grain supply. The Port of Vancouver also serves as one of the most important gateways for automotive companies in North America, handling around 420,000 finished vehicle imports in 2020 alone. Major OEMs could experience impacts on their import and export activities of vehicles and components in the coming weeks as carriers and port operators try to clear backlogs at the port.

Those moving goods in and out of British Columbia via road should also expect persistent delays, with many key roads sustaining significant damages due to the flooding and landslides in the region. Although most highways were reopened for essential travel by November 21, some sections of major motorways remain partially closed for damage assessment or repair works, including sections of Highway 5, 1 and 8. Some repairs, such as on the Coquihalla, could even take several months to complete.

Recommendations

While regional disruptions remain severe as of November 23, those doing business in British Columbia or dependent on transport networks passing through the province still have a range of options at their disposal to mitigate impacts and prepare for future disruptions.

In the short term, shippers with road, rail or barge shipments scheduled to/from or via the Port of Vancouver and other affected areas, are advised to account for additional waiting times and delays to all shipments as carriers either decide to wait or divert cargo to the Port of Prince Rupert located further north on the West Coast, which has remained fully operational and has not yet experienced any impact to port or rail operations.

In the longer term, the catastrophic flooding and subsequent blocking of key transport corridors, as well as extensive infrastructural damages across parts of British Columbia highlight the continued need for supply chain managers to pay particular attention to weather events such as heavy rainfall and associated flood risks, as well as the wide variety of disruptions they can cause to transportation networks.

To avoid being caught unprepared by adverse weather conditions and high volumes of rain, customers are advised to monitor the latest weather warnings and patterns through the Applied Meteorology capabilities provided by Everstream Analytics. And for early, near-time alerts and updates on further developments, Everstream Analytics’ Intelligence Monitoring allows customers to keep track of the extent of disruptive events and get in front of what’s ahead.

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