Nearly one half of Americans are planning to travel for the holidays this year, which is up from even pre-pandemic travel levels. With all this travel, and potential extreme weather, whether by plane, train or automobile, travelers should know that there are thousands of people looking out for public safety and working to make travel as smooth as possible this holiday season. It is a coordinated effort of meteorologists, risk communicators, transportation employees and airport operations teams evaluating resources and risks to make travel as safe and efficient as possible.
It’s important to keep an eye on the weather this time of year, as there are often extreme and highly impactful weather events, sometimes occurring at the same time in different parts of the country. Just earlier this month, we saw both a blizzard and a tropical system impacting the country at the same time, which is a rare occurrence. Hurricane Nicole made landfall along the east coast of Florida as a Category 1 hurricane and contributed to storm surge and localized flooding that impacted major thoroughfares like the one through St. Johns County which has collapsed or flooded in several areas. At the same time, the north-central region of the country saw strong wind gusts, whiteout conditions, and up to 18 inches of snow in some parts of Montana and North Dakota, resulting in the closing of highways in North Dakota.
The winter forecast outlook predicts colder than average temperatures in December with the La Nina effect weaking in January. The Thanksgiving week forecast may put more pressure on agencies as we’re expecting a continued cold pattern across the Great Lakes and Northeast. A storm system will track across the central US on Thanksgiving Day and head to the Mid-Atlantic and New England the Friday and Saturday after Thanksgiving. The storm system will bring rain across the southern half of the eastern US but will likely bring snow from the Upper Midwest to the Northeast as it interacts with that cold air in place. The Great Lakes and interior areas of the Northeast will be most at risk to see several inches of snow, but it is too early to pinpoint the exact storm track. The storm will likely impact post-Thanksgiving travel across the northeastern quadrant of the country, but the southwestern quadrant of the country will see quiet conditions throughout the week of Thanksgiving along with warmer than normal conditions.
Most trips for Thanksgiving this year will be by car and some surveys estimate it could be up to 80 percent of trips taken. Keeping roads safe during early-season ice or snow events can be challenging for transportation agencies. In addition to the potential weather events, salt supplies and staffing shortages are creating additional challenges this season. From Maine, to Missouri, plow-driver staff is down 30 percent from where it needs to be and these staffing shortages are making it even more challenging for many transportation agencies to appropriately make winter plans.
Managing salt supplies is also a priority for transportation agencies, especially when starting the season with early cold events. Typically, salt orders are placed in summer, so it is always important to keep an eye on forecasts to determine how to manage and allocate throughout winter. Hyperlocal road forecasts are particularly beneficial in early-season weather events because of consistent freezing along the road network. Often in November and December, the subsurface temperatures will keep pavement temperatures warm. With early season snowstorms, the air and surface temperatures may be cold, but there may be a warming effect from the subsurface pavement temperatures. At night, when temperatures cool, or even when environmental factors such as tall buildings, vegetation or valleys impact roads, the road can ice in certain sections. Using hyperlocal weather forecasts to inform decision making ensures transportation agencies are prepared for cold weather, which can come quickly, as we have already seen this autumn.
Resource planning is also important for airport operations. The airline industry is anticipating a busy travel season with numbers expected to surpass 2019 levels, and airport operations teams need to prepare, much like the transportation agencies, for the inevitable extreme weather. While this past summer saw canceled flights, severe weather, and pilot shortages, the cold weather presents its own challenges. Most airports have already started preparations to get winter equipment and supplies in place, but these teams need to be reviewing budgets and resource allocation as well. That may include checking to make sure deicing solution storage is accessible and there is an adequate supply on hand in the right locations. It’s also important to consider having extra crews and contractors on call for snow clearing and deicing efforts in the event of early-season cold.
Whether it’s by car or by air, those working to make travel safe and efficient will be monitoring weather conditions as they develop to ensure clear and concise communication with travelers and other stakeholders. Having a plan and a well-thought out, flexible decision tree based on new forecast information is the best strategy for managing winter weather impacts. For those transportation agencies or airport operations teams who use a risk communicator with enterprise weather services, the impact of weather is even further tailored to the weather risks of the business. Thanksgiving weekend is just the start of winter season, and this early-season cold may bring some more unexpected weather. Regardless of whether it is an ice storm, snowstorm or even a mild winter reprieve, those tasked with keeping the public safe while traveling will continue to keep a close eye on the forecast as we head into the heart of the holiday travel season.