Winter in Canada may seem like a Groundhog Day-type of forecast. Despite the country’s vastness, “cold and snowy” should be the copy-paste-repeat annual seasonal outlook, right?
Not so fast, longtime AccuWeather expert meteorologist Brett Anderson said as AccuWeather released its annual Canada winter forecast this week, spelling out what different areas of the country can expect.
The climatological phenomenon known as La Niña is present far out in the Pacific Ocean once again this year, and as Anderson can attest, with his decades of Canadian forecasting experience, it is sure to play a key role in the overall weather pattern this coming winter.
During last year’s winter, which was also influenced by La Niña conditions, the country had abnormally high temperatures, averaging as much as 40 degrees Fahrenheit above average in January. Yet come February, that trend flipped, with cities such as Edmonton and Winnipeg recording some of their lowest temperatures in recorded history.
This year, Anderson said similarly frosty conditions could make a biting return, although some areas of the country could be spared.
Take a look below for a complete breakdown of how the winter season, which officially begins on Tuesday, Dec. 21, will play out across Canada.
La Niña = Cold + Stormy
During a La Niña phase, which occurs on average every three to five years, sea surface temperatures in the open waters of the equatorial Pacific Ocean dip to below-average levels. By mid-October, a La Niña phase had officially developed, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said in a news release. That effect on Canada, particularly in the western half of the country, will likely send temperatures falling even lower than they do during the average winter.
This is due to the amplified polar jet stream, which can usher in colder air and more frequent storms. According to Anderson, that’s exactly what residents in the country’s western provinces should be prepared for.
“The upcoming winter is expected to be fairly stormy from southern British Columbia through the Canadian Rockies with many opportunities for significant rainfall and strong winds along the coast,” Anderson said. “Abundant snowfall is expected throughout much of ski country from the Coastal Range of British Columbia through the Rockies of western Alberta.”
In southern British Columbia, around Vancouver, far more rain than usual is expected to fall this winter, helping to ease abnormally dry conditions. According to Anderson, the past three winters all brought near- to above-normal precipitation, which includes rain and melted snow.
“Based on what I see, I think this winter will be wetter than the past five winters in southern British Columbia,” he said. “I think this winter will certainly put a dent in the ongoing severe drought across south-central parts of the province. Conditions have already improved across southwestern British Columbia this fall as drought conditions have almost disappeared.”
While that may sound like great news for skiers in the southern portions of those provinces, winter sports fanatics living farther north could be disappointed.
Due to the primary storm track angling so far to the south, Anderson said, precipitation and snowfall quantities may end up lower than average in northern British Columbia and Yukon.
Polar vortex to plunge down into Canadian Prairies
In the central portions of Canada, La Niña’s frigid ripple effects will mix with the harsh cold unleashed by blasts from the polar vortex. The combination could demand the need for an extra layer under the winter jacket this year even more than in years past, particularly for those who live in the Prairies.
According to Anderson, the polar vortex could be displaced from its normal area above the North Pole and plunge into central Canada from time to time this winter. As Canadians experienced in February, that can make for a bitter and brutal few weeks.
“I believe we may see at least three extreme blasts of bitterly cold air dropping down into the southern Prairies this winter,” Anderson said, noting that temperatures could plunge lower than 20 degrees below zero Fahrenheit (30 below zero C) on those occasions. “This winter will likely end up colder than the winter of 2018-2019 and the coldest winter since 2013-2014 in the region.”
The winter will be about 3 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius) lower than average for the southern Prairies, Anderson said, with the lowest departures across Alberta and Saskatchewan.
Such surges may take a toll on the heating bill but could spell good news to hobbyists in need of solid ice conditions, such as ice fishers or outdoor hockey players.
Another impact from this season’s La Niña-impacted polar jet stream will be increased snowfall in the provinces of Ontario and Quebec, which account for much of the eastern portion of the nation. Anderson said fans of snow in those heavily-populated areas can thank the polar jet stream for that increased snowfall.
Frequent cold intrusions across the Prairie region this winter should also force the secondary storm track well far to the south in the U.S., Anderson said. Storms will instead take aim at the Rockies and southern Plains of the U.S., before swinging northward and cutting up into parts of eastern Canada.
“The majority of the snowstorms will track up into Ontario and Quebec,” he said.
Warmer weather in east won’t ruin ski season
While the western half of the country will be bundling up this winter, Anderson said residents in much of the eastern half will save themselves a few Canadian dollars on heating costs. Climatologically above-average temperatures are likely in store for those regions, which includes some of the country’s most populated and visited cities of Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa.
But that doesn’t spell doom for snowfall totals, so forecasters say don’t cancel that ski trip just yet.
“While this winter does not look all that cold from Ontario to Quebec, it will be cold enough to support many opportunities for significant snowfall this winter,” Anderson said. “I expect a favorable winter with solid snow bases across much of ski country in eastern Canada and especially across Quebec.”
Similarly, a milder start to winter for areas surrounding the Great Lakes won’t dictate a lack of snow for the season as a whole. AccuWeather experts expect an above-average season snow total for Toronto, the nation’s most populous city, which could arrive in a similar fashion as last year’s winter when nearly 6 inches fell in mid-February.
Residents hoping for a white winter in those surrounding locations can be rooting for below-average ice coverage on the Great Lakes toward the end of the season. As of mid-October, water temperatures in the Great Lakes were above normal, particularly in Lake Ontario near Toronto.
According to SeaTemperature.info, water temperatures in Lake Ontario were hovering around 65 degrees Fahrenheit in the second week of October, significantly higher than in years past. In 2020, those water temperatures were as low as 54 degrees in some areas at this time.
“The Great Lakes snow belts are likely to get less lake-effect snow compared to normal during December and January,” Anderson said. “But that may pick up by February with a possible increase in cold shots over mostly-open lakes.”
Milder winter for Atlantic Canada, but conditions could change
La Niña won’t be the only sea surface temperature influence on Canada this winter. Off the country’s east coast, warmer-than-average water in the Atlantic Ocean will also play a character in the season’s script.
The combination of the aforementioned storm track skewing north and west, along with very high water temperatures in the northwest Atlantic Ocean, will favor a milder winter with average snowfall in Atlantic Canada.
“This pattern will likely favor more cloud cover across eastern Canada this winter with more mild nights and less demand for heating,” Anderson said.
Later in the winter, however, many of these scenarios could be altered by changing conditions.
In February, a pattern change may favor an increase in snowfall for the Maritime provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island.
In terms of the possibility for coastal storms and nor’easters, Anderson warned that residents of Atlantic Canada will need to keep their guard up through February.
“The greatest threat for powerful coastal storms in Atlantic Canada will come in February,” he said. “The clash of advancing cold air from the west with the abnormally warm waters of the northwest Atlantic may lead to some rapidly developing storms with a lot of wind and heavy precipitation from the Maritimes to Newfoundland.”