Counting Your Sweaty Blessings: The Polar Vortex and Logistics

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January 13, 2014

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Hello there, how’s your Monday blues? Whatever the case let me entertain you with my little wit of logistic bravery.

For those of us that call the vast expanse of the internet “home”, or catch brief CNN or AJ snippets while channel surfing, the term ‘Polar Vortex’ has been all the rage on international news recently. As images of bundled up Americans flood our news feeds, reports have it that temperatures in affected areas are expected to dip to 32 degrees below zero before conditions return to normal.

So what exactly IS a polar vortex? To simplify: the strong winds that usually ‘circle’ the North Pole, keeping cold air restricted to the region, have ‘malfunctioned’, likely by decreasing in intensity thus allowing the extremely cold air to ‘escape’ and spread further South than usual. This super chilled air has swept into about twelve American states, bringing on a harsh winter that has caught most residents off guard.

For the logistics industry operating within affected regions, the situation is not optimistic. Air travel is limited or has been grounded all together due to the extreme weather conditions, crippling operations of supply chain managers reliant on this important mode of transportation. While inconvenient, this halting of services is understandable: with reduced visibility associated with snowing, air travel becomes an unnecessary risk.

Extreme cold conditions also affect functionality of equipment such as landing gear, which requires de-icing in such situations, deters function of machinery on the ground such as conveyor belts, or crew vehicles which run on diesel which turns into an unusable viscous jelly at extreme temperatures. Insistence on operating such vulnerable equipment in such conditions almost guarantees mechanical damage that can leave machinery crippled long after the polar vortex subsides.

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Road travel is particularly vulnerable: where snow fall is a factor, roads can quickly be rendered impassable by a heavy night of snowing, leaving cargo being freighted by car without safe passage. Delivery vans or cars caught in a sudden cold snap also run the risk of being stranded as thick blankets of snow on roads make movements impossible, or cover an area entirely, making it impossible to distinguish where roads should be when looking into a wasteland of uniform white as far as the eye can see. Modifying vehicles to operate in more moderate snow can also be very costly for a logistics firm, e.g. paying for chains for tires to help increase traction.

Employees are also a very important consideration in such situations: no supply chain manager can excuse requiring employees to report to work in conditions that are potentially hazardous to their health by exposing them to hypothermia, frostbite and other cold-related injuries. Where temperatures are not life threatening, performance is likely to still be low as efficiency is hampered by bulky cold weather clothing and unconscious efforts to conserve energy for heating up vital organs. For some individuals, cold weather triggers a specific sort of depression known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, appropriately S.A.D for short. Conditions such as these affect employee motivation, ensuring reduced output at work.

Savvy supply chain managers in the worst hit American areas have followed the lead of most businesses and schools, suspending operations until such a time as Mother Nature shall decide to undo this fairly rare phenomenon. As for us here in Kenya, well, the January heat doesn’t look so bad right now, does it? Do enjoy your sweaty 2014.


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