Market Matters Blog

Extreme Cold, Snow and Ice Cause Transportation Nightmares

Mary Kennedy
By  Mary Kennedy , DTN Basis Analyst
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Ice in the Mississippi River at St. Louis caused traffic delays or stoppages for barges moving through there. On top of the icing, the river level has been falling and was at zero gauge as of Feb. 21. (Photo by Scott Schulte, Godfrey, Illinois)

As of the beginning of the week of Feb. 15, in response to forecasts of snow and ice storms, fleet movements were suspended on the Mississippi River around St. Louis, as well as on the Ohio River, Illinois River and Lower Mississippi River areas, noted the USDA in their weekly Grain Transportation report.

American Commercial Barge Line (ACBL) noted on their website that, as of Feb. 8, they went from 15 to nine barges on all Illinois River southbound tows and ceased any northbound tow movement into the river for the safety of personnel and equipment.

At Thomas J. O'Brien Lock and Dam, the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Rock Island District reported the river was 100% covered with 6-inch-thick ice extending five miles upstream, noted the Waterways Journal in their weekly newsletter on Feb. 16. At Marseilles Lock and Dam, there was 100% coverage of 4-inch-thick ice extending three miles upstream.

ACBL said on their website that USACE was implementing an 89-foot width restriction at Lagrange, Peoria, Starved Rock and Marseilles lock, reducing tow sizes down to six barges starting around Feb. 11, basically "driving the industry off the river and ceasing river operations."

For the week ended Feb. 13, USDA's Grain Transportation report noted that total down-bound grain barge movements were only 679,681 tons, a 14% drop from the previous week and 34% drop from two weeks ago. The decrease occurred despite strong export demand due to icy water conditions slowing barge operations.

On Feb. 19, the National Weather Service (NWS) Missouri Basin River Forecast Center said on their Facebook page that there is an ice jam that is continuing in the lower Missouri River. "It appears the jam may be extending from just upstream of Jefferson City, Missouri, all the way to Waverly, Missouri. This would be approximately 147 miles," said the NWS. "We believe the last time this much ice formed on the river was 1986. Formations -- ice bridges, in this case, normally melt without incident, however, larger chunks do pose a threat to barges, docks and our stone river structures that shape the flow into scouring the navigation channel.

In their Feb. 11 Spring Flood Outlook, the National Weather Service noted that "due to the prolonged period of well below normal temperatures, ice formation and thickness will increase on area rivers, raising the potential for ice jams at some point this spring. With ice now in place on most rivers, the potential for ice jams will be focused on the period of time when ice breaks up on the rivers."…


On Feb. 5, the entire Great Lakes ice coverage was only at 8.3%. As of Feb. 20, Great Lakes ice coverage had grown to 44.7%. NOAA scientists had projected the maximum Great Lakes ice cover for 2021 would be 30%, with the maximum typically occurring between mid-February and early March. At the end of January, the ice coverage on Lake Superior was well below average at 4% coverage. Thoughts of an early opening to the spring grain shipping season quicky vanished after the arctic air moved in and on Feb. 21, Lake Superior ice coverage had grown to 48.2%.


When temperatures remain well below zero, it negatively affects railroad performance. According to the BNSF, additional locomotives are usually required to generate proper airflow for trains' braking systems and there can be reduced productivity at terminals due to multiple switch and airflow issues across railyards.

In a Feb. 19 update to customers, the BNSF said that recovery efforts are ongoing as BNSF teams are making progress in restoring normal operations. "After another frigid morning across much of the network, including record-breaking low temperatures in Texas, weather conditions are improving, and operating teams are fully engaged in driving improved service performance heading into the weekend.

"As we have reported, the extreme weather experienced this week across our north region, through the central core of the network and deep into Texas caused a broad range of major service challenges. Many trains were forced to hold due to airflow issues resulting from the arctic cold. We also confronted significant snow and/or ice accumulations from the Pacific Northwest to the Gulf Coast, including in key locations like Chicago, Kansas City, Tulsa, Fort Worth and Memphis. Numerous power outages this week, particularly in Texas, also impacted crew deployments and other personnel," said the BNSF.…

The Union Pacific noted in a customer update on Feb. 20 that "we continue to make progress with our recovery efforts as the arctic weather has subsided throughout our network." In the Midwest region, the Chicago terminal is still recovering from significant snowfall and working to resume normal operations. In the Southern region, UP said that road conditions south of Little Rock, Arkansas, continue to impact their ability to transport crews. "Areas within Arkansas and Missouri continue to recover from an extended snowfall event and are working to resume normal operations. While the number of locations operating with the use of generators has decreased significantly, our engineering team continues to install and relocate generators across portions of South Texas. We continue to rebalance our crews to align with train flows in South Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas and Southern Missouri," said the UP.

The cash corn basis for shuttles delivered to the Pacific Northwest was 15 cents stronger the past week as logistics became tight due to the weather-related problems. BNSF secondary shuttle freight also rose the past week with February rising to bids of $600 per car above tariff against offers of $1,000. UP secondary freight also moved higher February with bids at $500 over against offers of $1,000. CIF NOLA basis was also firm the past week as barges struggled to make their way down to the Gulf because of the poor river conditions.


On Feb. 17, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration's (FMCSA) declared that an emergency existed, warranting issuance of a Regional Emergency Declaration and an exemption from Parts 390 through 399 of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety (FMCSRs), except as otherwise restricted in this Emergency Declaration. Such emergency is in response to damage and heating and other fuel shortages from severe winter storms in affected states.

The Declaration addresses the emergency conditions creating a need for immediate transportation of persons, supplies, goods, equipment and heating fuels, including propane, natural gas, heating oil and other fuel products and provides necessary relief, noted the FMCSA on their website. The declaration is effective until the end of the emergency or through March 4, whichever is earlier.

Affected states and jurisdictions included in this Emergency Declaration are: Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming.…

Mary Kennedy can be reached at

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