A bad hurricane season could be the next headache for businesses already facing a supply shortage

iota monday morn
Satellite imagery captures Hurricane Iota bearing down on Nicaragua as a Category 5 hurricane on November 16, 2020. NOAA/NASA

  • It will be another active year for hurricanes following 2020’s record-breaking season.
  • The storms could cause problems for already struggling supply chains like lumber, oil, and pork.
  • “It’s a significant risk that all businesses need to be thinking about right now,” said AccuWeather.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

A bad Atlantic hurricane season may be the next disruption to the supply chain.

“It looks like another active year,” said AccuWeather Chief Meteorologist Jonathan Porter, “which is not good news.”

Items from lumber and housing supplies, to toilet paper and tampons, to gas and plastics, to pork and chicken, have been plagued by shortages caused by a sting of factors: Supply chains snarled in the coronavirus pandemic, backed-up ports, reverberations from the February Texas freeze, the Suez Canal blockage, worker scarcity, and the temporary shutdown of a vital oil pipeline, among other issues.

Though meteorologists aren’t predicting the Atlantic hurricane season, which runs from June through November, will be as record-breaking as 2020, they’re saying the number of named storms and hurricanes will be higher than in a normal year.

DTN, a Minnesota-based analytics firm, is predicting 20 named storms, compared to the annual average of 12. Of those, nine will be hurricanes, and four will be major hurricanes of category 3 or stronger. AccuWeather had similar predictions of 16 to 20 named storms, seven to 10 becoming hurricanes, and three to five to becoming major hurricanes.

The economic impact from last year’s hurricane season, which had six category 3 or higher storms, was about $60 to $65 billion in damage and losses, according to AccuWeather.

“The combination of another enhanced hurricane season and the threat of landfall across a big section of the East Coast of the US this year will be disruptive to the supply chain,” said Renny Vandewege, a leading weather expert at DTN.

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Vandewege said the storms are more likely to favor the East Coast this year, compared to 2020, when the Gulf Coast felt a heavier impact.

The storms could “disrupt really anything that’s being imported in,” Vandewege said.

“We’re already having a months-long backup at the Port of Los Angeles, and then if we had also the same thing on the East Coast for an extended period of time, it could phenomenally exacerbate product shortages,” said Chris Wolfe, chief executive officer of logistics company PowerFleet.

Storms affect a state’s big industries, too. Along the Texas gulf coast, hurricanes can have an impact on the chemical and the oil and gas industries. A storm there could echo issues that arose from the Texas freeze in February and the six-day Colonial Pipeline shutdown that caused gas prices to surge and prompted some East Coast residents to panic-buy gas.

The forestry industry could be “deeply impacted” as well, Vandewege said. “There’s been shortage on building materials, and that could be enhanced even more if we’re seeing key manufacturing areas shut down around Louisiana and Alabama” because of a hurricane.

Pork, which is heavily produced in North Carolina and other southern states, has faced shortages in the past year, as well, thanks to the pandemic.

When hurricanes, like Florence in 2018, have struck the state in the past, thousands of hogs died. Other livestock and agriculture are also at risk when hurricanes hit.

“There’s huge pork production, chicken production, all the way through the South,” Wolfe said, so storms “could dirsupt food supplies.”

Porter from AccuWeather also noted that the West Coast could see another damaging wild fire season, and he said companies have to prepare ahead of time. “It’s a significant risk that all businesses need to be thinking about right now,” he said. “What’s their vulnerabilities and plan to mitigate.”

Climate change and extreme weather events topped the World Economic Forum’s list of biggest global risks in 2020. That was no surprise to Porter, who said, “people are getting negatively impacted almost on a daily basis by weather events. He said for businesses, the supply chain is a “major component” of that.

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Scientists spotted a ‘space hurricane’ swirling above the magnetic north pole. It was raining charged solar particles.

space hurricane
An illustration of a space hurricane above the North Pole.

Typical hurricanes are easy to spot in satellite imagery: Swirling clouds surround a quiet eye. These storms usually form in the lowest layer of the atmosphere, closer to Earth’s surface, and unleash heavy rain and strong winds.

But according to a recent study, space hurricanes are wholly different beasts.

The research, published in the journal Nature Communications, describes the first space hurricane ever spotted. Satellites observed it in August 2014 – a swirling mass with a quiet center more than 125 miles above the North Pole. 

Whereas regular hurricanes churn air, this space hurricane was an eddy of plasma, a type of super hot, charged gas found throughout the solar system. And instead of rain, this storm brought showers of electrons.

“Until now, it was uncertain that space plasma hurricanes even existed, so to prove this with such a striking observation is incredible,” Michael Lockwood, a space scientist at the University of Reading and a co-author of the new study, said in a press release.

The space hurricane was more than 620 miles wide, and high in the sky – it formed in the ionosphere layer, between 50 and 600 miles up. Lockwood and his coauthors used the satellite data to create a 3D model of the storm.

Space hurricanes could wreak havoc on satellites

The space hurricane lasted eight hours, swirling in a counter-clockwise direction. It had several spiral arms snaking out from its center, according to the researchers, a bit like a spiral galaxy.

spiral galaxy NASA
The NGC 1566 spiral galaxy, as photographed by NASA’s Hubble Telescope.

By plugging the satellite data into a computer model, Lockwood and his collaborators were able to reproduce the storm and figure out what caused it. The results showed that charged particles emitted by the sun’s upper atmosphere, the corona, were to blame.

This steady stream of solar particles and coronal plasma is known as solar wind; it moves at about 1 million miles per hour.

“These space hurricanes must be created by unusually large and rapid transfers of solar wind energy and charged particles into the Earth’s upper atmosphere,” Lockwood said.

As solar wind reaches Earth, it encounters the planet’s magnetic field. Earth has such a field because of the swirling liquid iron and nickel in its outer core, which gives rise to electric currents. The resulting magnetosphere protects the planet from deadly radiation from the sun but also retains a tiny layer of plasma from that solar wind.

magnetic field
Earth’s magnetic field protects the planet from solar radiation.

Typically, solar winds glance off this protective sheath. But sometimes, the incoming charged particles and plasma interact with either the trapped plasma or the electrical currents generating the field. Such interactions create disturbances in the magnetosphere. 

The 2014 space hurricane was one such disturbance.

In particular, the study authors suggest that an interaction between the Earth’s magnetic field and bits of the sun’s magnetic field – transported on the solar wind – helped form the storm.

Usually, magnetic fields don’t mix. But if they do come close together, portions of the fields can get realigned and sometimes even merge – forming a new pattern of magnetic energy. That’s what likely happened on the day of the space storm: An influx of solar wind energy formed a new pattern above Earth’s magnetic north pole.

Once it had formed, the storm acted like a channel from space into Earth’s atmosphere – funneling some electrons down past the planet’s armor. 

This particle rain could have wreaked havoc on our high-frequency radio communications, radar-detection systems, or satellite technology, according to the study authors. That’s because charged solar particles that seep through Earth’s magnetic field are known to cause malfunctions in computers and circuitry on satellites and the International Space Station. Luckily in this case, no issues were observed.

Other planets could have space hurricanes, too

jupiter magnetic field
An illustration of Jupiter’s magnetic field, part of the American Natural History Museum’s planetarium show, “Worlds Beyond Earth.”

Earth isn’t the only planet to experience hurricanes: similar weather patterns occur on Mars, Saturn, and Jupiter. But this is the first time scientists have spotted a hurricane in the upper atmosphere of any planet in the solar system.

Lockwood thinks any planet or moon with a magnetosphere could experience a space hurricane, however. All planets in our solar system except Venus and Mars have those.

“Plasma and magnetic fields in the atmosphere of planets exist throughout the universe, so the findings suggest space hurricanes should be widespread phenomena,” he said.

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