According to the traditional Chinese calendar, the 15 days ahead of the Lunar New Year (also known as the Spring Festival) is a period called the Great Cold, which barely describes the arctic freeze that descended on the United States last week, and gives a whole new meaning to the concept of cold food chains.

The now infamous Polar Vortex – a freezing air mass displaced by warming in the northern polar region – has profoundly affected logistics operations in recent days during a crucial period for high-value luxury perishable exports to China such as lobsters from Maine and cherries and other fruit from across the country.

All 50 states (including Hawaii) have experienced freezing temperatures. Four days of severe weather resulted in the cancellation of more than 11,000 flights. At many airfields, particularly in the Midwest, airfield workers could barely venture outside, if at all, to service aircraft as temperatures plummeted to -25⁰C and below.

If the many challenges of managing critically timed supply chains to China for the Lunar New Year weren’t daunting enough, then the onset of weather emergencies can unravel the best-laid plans.

Exporters are still counting the costs and working around the disruptions to fulfil their orders for the Spring Festival, the two week holiday in China. Following a similar Polar Vortex in 2014, the Journal of Commerce described the chaos wrought on shippers, railways and trucking.

“In addition to problems related to the cold weather, train derailments, port backlogs and higher than usual general freight demand in January are testing transportation networks and shipping capacity,” the Journal reported.

The cold also hampered diesel-fuelled cranes at intermodal terminals. Railway and terminal operators were unable to move containers out of the terminal. Shipments piled up, and some shippers diverted freight away from intermodal rail to avoid delays.

“The congestion in Chicago was among the worst some customers had seen. On the East Coast, bad weather and backlogs from the holidays combined to slow pickups and deliveries of containers and cause long turn times for drayage drivers this month at the Port of New York and New Jersey.

“Long lines of trucks were waiting when terminals reopened January 2 that year. Terminals that continued to handle ships started the new year with a large backlog of import cargo.

Source: International Monetary Fund, World Economic Outlook Database

The US is the second largest food exporter to China, not far behind Brazil. Australia’s market share has risen rapidly in recent years, making it No. 4 exporter to China, just behind Canada and slightly ahead of New Zealand, according to the Austrade, the government agency run by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.  

Australia’s high-end exports to China include fresh lobsters, abalone and prawns; wine (90 per cent of it red varieties); fresh fruit; high-grade meat; and macadamia nuts.

And while the United States froze, Australia suffered the opposite with some of the most torrid heatwaves ever recorded. At one stage, in January this year, the fifteen hottest places on Earth were all Down Under.

While the heat did not cause too many disruptions to supply chains, global warming is posing greater long-term challenges to the country’s agri-food sector. University of Melbourne researchers indicated that the northern tropical regions will become wetter and prone to stronger tropical cyclones. Meanwhile, the drier southern and western regions – where much of the nation’s highly prized wines, dairy and temperate fruit is produced will become increasingly arid.

“Nuts and fruits require a certain number of hours below a threshold temperature, and if they don’t get it, they simply won’t reproduce,” researcher Richard Eckard told Scientific American. “Climate change will challenge those crops. That’s a real cutoff issue.”