Now is the winter of our discontent. The last four years have been a roller coaster. But this winter has been extreme by any standards.

Over the winters of 2009-10 and 2010-11, the Philadelphia area received huge snow storms that buried us for days each year. We thought that was bad.

Then we received a couple of much needed and well deserved breaks over the last two winters. Both 2011-12 and 2012-13 were mild, with very little snow. In fact, last winter was extremely mild. It was almost enough to make you forget those snow storms of recent years, and forget what a normal winter is around these parts.

Then came this season. It started calm enough back in December. But over the last month we have received 33 inches of snow, capped by the storm earlier this week which dumped more than a foot on most of the area. Since our average winter delivers about 20 inches, we are already well above that average.

It hasn’t been just the snow storms this year. The cold has been bitter and unrelenting. Here in the northeast we have been introduced to a new meteorological term: the polar vortex.

The polar vortex refers to a couple of climate features that hover near the poles year-round. The one affecting our weather normally hovers over the area of Baffin Island in Canada. In rare events, that elongated vortex can dip lower, however.

This notably happened during what became known as the ‘Winter 1985 Arctic Outbreak’, in which the polar vortex dipped abnormally low, bringing record-breaking cold into every section of the northeastern United States. Temperatures in the Philly area dipped below zero.

That cold dipped as low as Florida, where the average low is about 60 degrees in Miami in late January. Temperatures there set record lows, dipping into the 30’s. By the end of that winter, more than 90% of the Florida citrus crop was destroyed.

The bad news for us? This pattern is back. The polar vortex is back. The persistent cold temperatures are back. And in 1985, the cold lasted well into February. Our own forecasts right now show that we are not predicted to warm up at all into early February.

There is good news. Hold on. Pitchers and catchers begin reporting to baseball Spring Training in Florida in less than three weeks. The fact is, this cold wave will snap. We will have spring. Temperatures will rise. We just need to hang in there while Old Man Winter gets in a few more licks.

(artwork of meteorologist John Bolaris courtesy of


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