Winter Outlook Update: Mid-January

Winter Outlook Update: Mid-January


The initial Winter Outlook was issued during the first week of November and concluded that this winter (2020/21) would be much different than a year ago.  Last winter (2019/20) was the warmest and least disruptive winter in modern times when averaged out across the heavily populated mid-latitudes (U.S., Europe, and Asia).  

That initial assessment is going as planned.  While the start of winter was warmer than normal with a low frequency of winter storm disruptions, major changes began to occur around the first of the year.  A major weakening of the Polar Vortex (PV) allowed Arctic air, which was locked up near the North Pole early this winter, to begin flowing south into the mid-latitudes.  Arctic air and disruptive winter storms first impacted East Asia and then most recently Europe; this never occurred a year ago.   

Once the PV dramatically weakens, it stays weak for an extended period of time.  As a result, we expect the second half of winter to feature periodic bouts of Arctic air moving into the population zone of the mid-latitudes along with a higher frequency of winter storms.  This will increase the amount of winter storm disruptions in the supply chain and increase the need for protection from extreme cold (Protect From Freeze – PFF) of temperature-sensitive products.    

All in all, the second half of winter looks colder and more disruptive (winter storms) than the first half of winter. 

Halftime Update

The middle portion of January marks the halfway point of winter in the major population zones across the Northern Hemisphere. From a macro perspective, the winter started mild across the Northern Hemisphere as the majority of the mid latitude population zones (U.S, Europe, and East Asia) were warmer than normal in November and most of December.

However, patterns began to dramatically change in late December and early January with increased storminess and cold air flowage into portions of the major population zones. This resulted in harsher and more impactful winter weather conditions along with increased protection from freeze (PFF) requirements in some, but not all, key supply chain zones. We will now examine the first half of the season in each of the three population and major supply chain zones. 

Fig. 1. The three global population zones: United States, Europe and East Asia. 

The U.S. 

The first half of the season was anomalously warm in the U.S. and featured a lack of Arctic air masses moving into the region. As a result, PFF requirements for shipped products across the U.S. road and rail network were below normal. The warmer than normal trend began in November and continued through December and into January. Of the 80 total days from November 1 through January 19, 67 (84 percent) were warmer than normal. The warmest time frame, basis normal, was during the first half of January as every day was warmer than normal to various degrees including peak warm days with anomalies greater than 4 degrees Celsius above normal.

Fig. 2. Daily temperatures anomalies (degrees C) over the United States population zone from 01 November 2020 through 
19 January 2021. Data source: ERA5. 

In terms of snowfall, a majority of the Lower 48 had below normal totals throughout the first half of the season. As a result, much of the U.S. transportation network and supply chain hubs experienced fewer storm disruptions compared to normal so far this winter. The key transportation regions with below normal snowfall included the Great Lakes, Northern Plains, Northern New England, Sierras in California, and Central Rockies. The scattered areas with above normal snowfall include the interior Northeast (PA/OH), Southern Plains (TX/OK), and Pacific Northwest (WA). 

All in all, the first half of winter in the U.S. and southern Canada featured above normal temperatures and below normal winter storm disruptions.  

Fig. 3. Snowfall anomalies across the United States from 01 November 2020 through 19 January 2021. Data source: ERA5. 


Europe also had a warm biased first half of the winter. However, when compared to the U.S., there was certainty more temperature variability. Of the total 80 days between November 1 and January 19, 53 (66 percent) were warmer than normal while 27 were colder than normal. The most anomalous warmth was in late December and early January while the most anomalous cold was just recently during mid-January. The recent cold was associated with Siberian air expanding westward into Europe.

Fig. 4. Daily temperatures anomalies (degrees C) over the Europe population zone from 01 November 2020 through 19 January 2021. Data source: ERA5. 

As for snow, the first half stats for Europe show that most of eastern Europe and Russia had below normal snowfall totals and disruptive events. Portions of southern and eastern Europe, however, have had above normal snowfall with some areas experiencing record snowfall during the first half of the winter.  These high snow areas (higher frequency of storm disruptions) include parts of the Alps (including Brenner Pass, a key border crossing hub), Spain, southern Norway, southern Romania, and southern Russia.

Fig. 5. Snowfall anomalies across Europe from 01 November 2020 through 19 January 2021. Data source: ERA5.

East Asia 

Of all three major population/supply chain zones, East Asia has been the zone of highest impact via extreme cold. While November also started quite mild, temperatures started to turn colder than normal in mid-December. The most anomalous cold was in late December and early January and was widespread across China, the Koreas, and Japan as intense Siberian air flowed into the region. In fact, the first 10 days of January this year across East Asia featured the second coldest temperatures of any January since 1990. Moreover, this was a big change from last year, let alone, the past seven years when January started on the milder side. 

Fig. 6. Daily temperatures anomalies (degrees C) over the East Asia population zone from 01 November 2020 through 19 January 2021. Data source: ERA5. 
Fig. 7. Average temperature anomalies (degrees C) during 01 – 10 January from 1990 – 2021 across the East Asia population zone. Data source: ERA5. 

Not only was the cold widespread but some of it approached or broke record levels. For example in Beijing, China, the thermometer bottomed out at -19 degrees C on January 7 and January 8 during the height of the cold wave. This reading of -19 degrees C was the second coldest January temperature observed during the past 30 years. The coldest was -22 degrees C back in January 2000.

Fig 8. January Minimum temperature (degrees C) in Beijing from 1990 – 2021. Data source: ERA5. 

As a result of the widespread and extreme cold, power demand and electricity generation reached historic levels leading to power rationing in China. Furthermore, the extreme cold produced sea-ice conditions at some of the main ports in northern China including Bohai and Huanghai. Strong winds accompanied the Siberian air creating port disruptions and congestion leading to increased waiting times for vessels. Several major Chinese ports that closed due to wind included Tianjin, Dalian, Quingdao, and even Shanghai. Additionally, tremendous sea-effect snow pummeled parts of western Japan leading to road closures, rail line stoppages, port disruptions, and business disruptions. 

As discussed in the initial winter outlook report, the variables for this winter are unique compared to recent winters. The strong La Nina event (colder than normal sea-surface temperatures) across the central and eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean is producing the underlying base-state influencing circulation patterns around the entire world. However, the Polar Vortex (PV) is an extremely important variable in dictating week-to-week and month-to-month extreme warmth/cold and winter storm location and frequency. 

So, what has changed from early November until now that ended the milder start to winter and began more impactful wintry conditions within supply chain networks?

It’s the PV! The PV has changed dramatically during the past 4-6 weeks. Back in November and early December, the PV was very strong and stable and positioned at the North Pole. This helped to lock up Arctic air in the higher latitudes and produce warmer than normal temperatures in the mid-latitude population zones. The first map below shows the strong and stable PV which was centered near the North Pole.  As a result, Arctic air was “locked up” near the North Pole and the mid-latitudes (U.S., Europe, and East Asia) were unusually warm.   

Starting in mid-December, the PV weakened significantly, ultimately turning highly unstable and collapsing during early January. The second map below is a depiction of the PV in early January.  Instead of the PV being centered over the North Pole, it was displaced into northern Russia and elongated toward east Asia (China) and Europe.  This heightened instability of the Polar Vortex began to unleash the flow of Arctic air into the mid-latitudes. 

The first area impacted by the unstable PV was East Asia in late December when Siberian air began flowing into the region and storminess began increasing across northeast China, the Koreas, and Japan. The next area was Europe in mid-January. The final area was North America also in mid-January. However, the main Arctic cold has been positioned across Canada rather than plunging into the Lower 48. Thus, the U.S. during the first half of winter has not felt the direct cold impact of the PV collapse. The response of this collapse during the first half of winter has been in the eastern Hemisphere rather than in North America.   

Fig. 9. Example of a stable Polar Vortex. Data source: ERA5. 
Fig. 9. Example of a weak Polar Vorte . Data source: ERA5. 

Looking ahead, the Polar Vortex will remain unstable through the end of January and much of February. In other words, we do not anticipate a fast recovery of the PV starting out the back half of winter.  Once the PV becomes highly unstable in the middle of winter, it stays highly unstable. As a result, the persistent unstable PV will continue to produce more impactful wintry weather into February.  This includes periodic bouts of Arctic air in various areas of the mid-latitude demand zones and increased winter storms.  All in all, the second half of winter looks colder and more disruptive (winter storms) than the first half of winter. 

Winter Outlook Update Takeaways and Impacts

Putting everything together, below are our key takeaways and impacts for the second half of winter.

  • From a macro standpoint, the second half of winter should not be as warm as the first half.
  • A continued unstable Polar Vortex will deliver more Arctic cold and maintain storminess within the main population zones.
  • In North America, the highest risk (extreme cold and disruptive winter storms) will be primarily in the northern areas – northern U.S. and Canada. In other words, the northern areas will be favored for enhanced PFF requirements and a higher frequency of disruptions at key hubs (major cities, cargo airports, IM hubs, sea ports) and along important road and rail corridors.
  • Overall, the highest Risk (extreme cold and disruptive winter storms) will be in East Asia and Europe. The risk is highest in the more northern locations where additional disruptions can be expected at key hubs (major cities, cargo airports, IM hubs, sea ports) and along important road and rail corridors.

With additional impactful weather expected the second half of winter, we advise close monitoring and taking any preparatory action to mitigate any risks within your network. 

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