The Current

Why it has been bitterly cold in Canada this holiday season

Right across the country Canadians are wrapping up the holiday season in a deep freeze — and it's expected to get worse.
Are you shivering yet? (Trevor Brine/CBC)

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This festive season is wrapping up in a deep freeze, with Environment Canada issuing extreme weather alerts for much of the country.

Nova Scotians woke up to an unwelcome gift on Christmas Day — more than 150,000 residents found themselves without power, while wind and blizzard warnings are still threatening much of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Quebec and Ontario are facing extreme cold warnings, and heavy snowfall is in the future for B.C. skies. But the deep freeze has hit the Prairies the hardest.  

We know the cold air at this time of year has staying power.- David Phillips, senior climatologist with Environment Canada

Experts say it's unusual for this much of the country to be simultaneously facing such extreme weather, and it looks like it's here to stay.  

"We know the cold air at this time of year has staying power," says David Phillips, a senior climatologist with Environment Canada.

"I don't see any melting temperatures for a long while — maybe the second week of January. We'll see something more normal, I think, by somewhere in the first week of January in the west, and perhaps the beginning of the second week of January in the east."

Experts are warning Canadians in extremely cold conditions to beware of hypothermia and frostbite. (Mark Blinch/Canadian Press)

Unwinding the Polar Vortex

David Phillips attributes the burst of cold air to a weakening of the North Pole's polar vortex, which is a large body of low pressure and freezing air surrounding the pole.

"This is a pole of very cold air that circulates up there ... and it spins around, around like a barber pole. Sometimes it weakens and [when it does], the irony is that it actually moves southward."

Phillips says the latest interference in the vortex was likely a thrust of warm air that split the body in two, with one half rushing over the heart of North America, right down to the United States.

"And it's just as cold as when it left its origin," Phillips tells The Current's guest host Catherine Cullen.

"My gosh, even skiers and ice fishers who like winter feel it's almost too harsh under a polar vortex."

The Upside Down

Although the descent of the polar vortex is unseasonably early this year, it's a relatively common phenomenon for our great Canadians winters. But Phillips finds the coolness in the south all the more alarming given the balmy temperatures appearing in Canada's cooler territories.

"In the south, eight of the 10 provinces have weather extreme cold warnings out ...The irony is that in the north and the Northwest Territories, I don't think there's any weather warnings."

The fact the ice is melting in the north, that the polar vortex is moving southward —  it may be that this is climate change.- David Phillips

"I'm from Windsor, Ont., the most southerly place in Canada. This morning it was colder there than it was in the North Pole. I mean come on. Twelve degrees colder than normal in Windsor, and up in the North pole it's 15 degrees warmer than it should be. Talk about an upside down situation!"

When asked what relationship this extreme weather may have to climate change, Phillips erred on the side of caution.

"While I think climate change doesn't create the weather, it certainly makes it different and may be more extreme," he says.

"The fact the ice is melting in the north, that the polar vortex is moving southward —  it may be that this is climate change."

Listen to the full segment at the top of this post. 

This segment was produced by The Current's Donya Ziaee, Yamri Taddese, and Susana Ferreira.