Will there be a polar vortex this winter? Yes. Because there always is

In Saskatchewan, it could be the coldest it's been all winter and extreme wind chill warnings across that province and neighbouring Manitoba.
Remember last winter's bitter cold? Looking ahead to this winter, we can breathe a bit easier. Global News

TORONTO – November is here. That means winter is coming. That means the cold. And the snow. And the polar vortex.

After last winter’s bitter cold and a season that seemed like it would never end, Canadians are likely holding their collective breath wondering if this winter will be “Polar Vortex: The Sequel.”

But don’t panic: The polar vortex has always been around. The popularity of the term just caught fire last winter because of its persistence.

READ MORE: Sudbury gets blast of Halloween snow

“Everybody’s talking about the polar vortex, only because it’s fresh in our minds,” said Environment Canada’s senior climatologist, David Phillips. “We’ve gone 20 years without people ever mentioning the polar vortex. Back in the late 1990s it was talked about and then it was resurrected last year.”

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The polar vortex is an area of low pressure that normally resides in the Arctic. This spinning vortex of cold air occasionally dips south bringing frigid air along with it.

WATCH: What is a polar vortex?

Last winter that polar vortex dipped down — often and persistently. It just refused to leave.

“It made it the event of the year,” Phillips said.

So what will this winter bring? Will it be another repeat of a stubborn and unwanted guest?

The polar vortex will be around, and likely for a few days. It always has been. But it’s unlikely to be around as long as it was last winter.

“I think it’s fairly safe to say that it’s not going to be a return to last year. Last year was a one-off. It was one of these things that was an outlier. They’ll occur again. But the chances of them occurring again are very low,” said Phillips.

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Still, forecasting a seasonal outlook when it’s two months away is tricky business. Weather and its influences are always changing. So there are no guarantees, something that most people would love to have.

Take the winter of 2011-2012. Forecasters across the United States and Canada called for a colder-than-normal winter. Instead, it was the third warmest winter on record.

“Winter doesn’t arrive until Dec. 21-22, so we’re talking about something that seems like eons away, and we’re talking about a possibility of El Nino,” said Phillips. “Every time I look at it, the models seem to be a little different than the previous day. So it’s like a moving target.”

Environment Canada's winter forecast for November to January.
The forecast for the months of October to December show most of Canada to be around normal. That would be nice after last winter. Environment Canada

The expected weak El Nino event will bring wetter weather to western Canada and the U.S. (and potentially catastrophic flooding to areas in the Pacific), as well as milder temperatures to eastern Canada. In 1997-1998, such an event was behind the disastrous ice storm that devastated parts of eastern Ontario, southern Quebec and parts of Atlantic Canada.

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READ MORE: El Nino – What it is and why it matters

Even a weak El Nino event will influence our weather this winter.

“So right away, the dice are loaded to say it won’t be as cold as last year,” Phillips said.

The U.S. National Weather Service agrees.

Though they are forecasting a somewhat cooler winter for the southern states, the west and east coast look to be warmer than normal. So that means the cold, Arctic air isn’t anticipated to dip down to the south very much.

Mike Halpert, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said that “the temperature outlook favours a warmer-than-average winter for…a band extending from the west coast through most of the inner mountain west and across the U.S.-Canadian border to New England.”

U.S. winter forecast
The U.S. National Weather Service is forecasting a somewhat warmer winter for a large part of the northern states, which is similar to Environment Canada’s forecast. NOAA

But what about the Farmer’s Almanac that is calling for a “T-rex winter” with bitter cold?

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“I’d much rather believe that our forecast is correct since we look at factors that do influence winter, not woolly bear caterpillars and moon phases, which have no bearing at all on what the winter or summer or any season is going to be,” Phillips said. “But when you look at water temperatures, and the water temperatures are very warm in the Atlantic and the north also in the Pacific, so there’s a lot of warm water bathing Canada.”

That means that it is likely that winter will take some time to really get going, Phillips believes. And that, in turn, means a shorter cold spell.

“[The forecast map] is showing warmer-than-normal over 90 per cent of the country,” said Phillips.

“No area — not one area at all, not even a pimple on that map — is showing cooler than normal.”

As for snowfall, models are forecasting near-normal, but it’s hard to call. Last year, precipitation was almost normal around the country, but with little melting due to the extended cold spell, it mainly fell as snow, and stuck around.

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So that’s not to say that we won’t have bitterly cold days this winter or snowstorms. We always do.

But maybe this time we’ll see some light at the end of the snowy, wintery tunnel.