NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Winter Storm Juno is set to fill maritime lore while leaving piers empty in the Port of New York and New Jersey. The U.S. Coast Guard has warned captains that conditions may force them to shore within the harbor, or to remain at sea. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has declared that all container terminals will be closed Tuesday.

This time around, it’s snow and wind visibility “white outs” and groundfall accumulation that will still the city, not storm surge flooding, scientists predict.

On Tuesday, according to Port Authority public information officer Lenis Rodrigues, the weather will impact the 13,000 to 15,000 daily gate moves, the unique truck trips picking up or dropping off containers. 

"Those containers will be handled when the terminals re-open," Rodrigues said. "Likewise, ships will be worked when it is safe to do so. They will either wait out the storm alongside the terminals or at sea depending on their schedule, discretion of the captain or under direction of the U.S. Coast Guard.”  

Even a one-day shutdown will place a drag on the cargo system in the coming year and possible beyond, said Chuck Clowdis, managing director for global transportation at IHS, which provides consulting and publications in the field.

“When you have a bad day, you never really catch up. You’re not physically able to catch up,” he said, noting that most players are operating at capacity. “There are a lot of hidden costs in there. There are letters of credit. Draymen, a kind of short-haul trucker, are paid by the load, and so they’re not getting paid. Longshoremen are losing wage-earning hours. There are inventory carrying costs, and truckers are sitting idle and losing days of work.”

Those needing rail freight will also suffer, Clowdis noted, because service roads to companies hugging the tracks are a lower priority than street grids and main thoroughfares.

“A warehouse doesn’t vote, and the plows go where the voters are,” he said.

On the bright side, he said, even though there was too little time to divert goods to airplanes, most of the cargo is of the kind that can wait a day.

“If it’s vital, it probably doesn’t end up in a cargo box anyway," he said. "Pharmaceuticals and hot commercial items like the latest holiday gadget are never on boats.” 

For the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the chief obstacle to shipping will be ashore, with snows predicted to reach as much as two feet deep, with higher drifts.

“This is for our truck drivers on the roads,” said Rodrigues. The port is the largest on the East Coast of the U.S. and third largest in the nation, after South Louisiana and Houston. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey reports its most recent shipping data here.

Most of what arrives in New York and New Jersey is absorbed by local consumers, making the port more of a regional economic powerhouse than an entry point for goods to be trucked over the continent. Long-haul truckers will edge as close to New York City as possible, Clowdis said. A New York State of Emergency will ban tractor-trailers from several large highways in the New York City area starting Monday night. Cargo ship captains will maneuver to avoid the storm track and then sit between five and 12 nautical miles out to sea, Clowdis added.

Tugboats will be busy no matter the storm’s outcome.

“We’re a 24/7 business," said Richard Tambini, chief dispatcher for McAllister Towing, one of the largest tugging companies in the region. "All the tugboats, they don’t stop unless the Coast Guard tells them to. The Coast Guard might close us due to low visibility, but we have seven or eight tugs continuously working.”

Much of the cargo is fuel oil, Tambini said, but even if cargo isn’t moving, tugs might be busy on the water pushing vessels at anchorage or dock against winds, to stabilize them.

With the New York metro area still rebuilding from Superstorm Sandy’s flooding, storm surges are perhaps more frightening than snowfall. But while Juno and Sandy were accompanied by similar astronomically predicted tide levels, storm surges this time around won’t pose a great threat to commercial infrastructure, said physical oceanographer Philip Orton of the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken.

While Sandy overtopped at 14 feet above average daily low tide, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts Juno will reach 7 feet above average low tide at The Battery in Manhattan, and Orton says it might even be a foot lower. According to Orton, who also blogged about the blizzard, some key differences between the storms are in duration, direction and atmospheric pressure. Sandy lingered, he said, and brought winds from the northeast before pivoting upon landfall to bring wind from southeast. The Atlantic Ocean lies to the east of New York City, so these winds delivered waves and swells. That proximity to the ocean, however, will spare New York City from the kind of snowmelt damage one witnesses in the floodplains of smaller water bodies.

Carved by the Hudson River, the estuary system commonly known simply as New York Harbor is one of the largest natural harbors in the world. It’s composed of a series of bays linked by channels and “kills,” a word left over from Dutch colonization. The bays and kills are small enough that storms don’t have long “fetches” (open areas) for waves to build up as they would on an open sea front. Staten Island-based McAllister Towing, for example, is relatively sheltered on the Kill Van Kull that links the Upper Bay of New York Harbor to Newark Bay.

But that advantageous topography offers no haven from the likely recurrence of such fast-arriving major blizzards, cautioned meteorologist Kevin Trenberth, a distinguished senior scientist in the "Climate Analysis Section" at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo. As with much of the increasing strangeness of weather in recent years, atmospheric scientists identify global climate change as a major factor.

“The contrast between the cold continent and the warm Gulf Stream and surrounding waters is increasing," said Trenberth. "At present sea surface temperatures are more the 2 degrees Fahrenheit above normal over huge expanses off the east coast, and water vapor in the atmosphere is about 10% higher as a result. About half of this can be attributed to climate change.”

For Trenberth, it’s the 2010 “Snowmaggedon” déjà vu. In that case too, because sea surface temperature were above normal,”that led to exceptional amounts of moisture being fed into the circulation of the storm and resulted in exceptional snow amounts in the Washington DC area. Here we go again, except the area being targeted is a bit further north.”

We can expect climate change to increase snowfalls in the midwinter in the New York region as long as temperatures are cold enough, he said, while we’ll have greater rains at the beginning and end of winter. In other words, roughly the same amount of snow for the season but concentrated into late January and February.

For Clowdis, as a business man, the story of this storm is how such a major port got blindsided.

“The storm came up too suddenly," he said. "It’s unusual in that the notice came this quickly for something this severe.” 

--Written by Erik Baard for MainStreet