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Polar Vortex Affects on Cold Chain Packaging

The beginning of 2019 was a headache for many pharmaceutical and food distributers. The vortex of extremely cold air that stays above the North Pole migrated down to the northern and middle states of the U.S. causing temperatures to reach -77°C in some parts of the Midwest. This disrupted many facets of the supply chain ranging from canceled flights to delivery truck driver frostbite dangers just from being temporarily outside to deliver a parcel to the front door. One of the largest factors that affected distributers was the lack of data to support the ability of their packaging to provide a cold chain solution at these frigid temperatures.

A video from USA Today explaining how the Polar Vortex is formed and when it affects the United States and Canada.

Risk has been a major factor being addressed by both distributers and manufacturers, mostly put in place through ISO and other certifications businesses obtain to ensure their quality systems are up to par with 2020 standards. Many types of pharmaceuticals that are manufactured and distributed to either homes, pharmacies, or doctor’s offices cannot be allow to freeze due to the proteins and other molecules breaking down if their solvent (usually water) turns to ice. Food can suffer the same issues where fruits or vegetables in meal kits can become damaged from extreme cold temperatures. Even the less considered items such as topical creams used as flea treatments for animals or cosmetic products can have their liquids separate out and ruin the product when they experience extreme cold temperatures. Many of these products were unable to be shipped for the first few months of 2019 due to the uncertainty in their safe arrival to their destination within their acceptable temperature limits.


The solution for many distributers to alleviate the risk of the polar vortex temperatures was to not ship at all due to their cold chain packaging being tested and qualified against a standard Winter profile. While these profiles were designed to be for the average winter temperatures that a parcel would experience throughout its transit, usually just below or at the freezing point, they did not account for temperatures in the extreme cold range and therefore did not provide confidence in their performance at these lower temperatures. Also there was the unknown variable of the shipment actually ever seeing these extreme temperatures; just because it is -20°C outside does not mean the package will ever experience that temperature if it goes from inside a distribution center directly into a temperature controlled delivery truck. For many, it was worth the revenue to not ship a parcel instead of risking a thousand dollar payload being ruined in transit.


Near the end of 2019, distributers and manufacturers began looking for solutions to extreme cold temperatures in case another polar vortex event happened in 2020. The Center of Excellence Laboratory at EFP, LLC. was able to develop resources to ensure clients that products could be shipped throughout the entire winter months and that shipping would not be shut down. Using thermal testing chambers that can produce temperatures as low as -50°C, a custom profile was developed with dips at extremely low temperatures  to test the robustness of a cold chain solution for both current cold chain packaging that a client may be using and to develop new solutions. A line of shipping solutions with a higher system R-value were also developed that could withstand cold temperature shocks and ensure the risk of freezing was alleviated. These more durable solutions could be kept at the distribution site and used ad hoc whenever they were needed a few times a year.


If you are unsure if your cold chain shipper will withstand extremely cold temperatures or if you need a solution to shipping in colder temperatures, contact us today and we will ensure your packages can ship through the next polar vortex.

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