As Americans hunker down to weather the pandemic this winter at home, nearly every facet of life will remain upended to safeguard against the coronavirus. Millions are working from home and learning remotely and even holiday gatherings will look a lot different this year. Staying closer to home may mean fewer weather worries for commutes and disruptions to daily activities, but AccuWeather has you covered on what you can expect weather-wise as we navigate uncertain times.

AccuWeather’s team of long-range forecasters, led by Senior Meteorologist Paul Pastelok, released its annual predictions for the upcoming winter season this week. The team has been analyzing global weather patterns and various weather models to project what conditions will unfold across the lower 48 United States this winter, which arrives on Dec. 21 this year. Much of the time the setup will be driven by one key factor: La Niña.

La Niña is a phenomenon in which the surface water near the equator of the Pacific Ocean are cooler than normal, the opposite of El Niño when the water in the equatorial Pacific is in a warm phase. This change in the water temperature can have a major influence on the weather patterns all around the globe. According to NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center, La Niña officially developed by early September and is forecast to continue through the winter months.

Folks across the Great Lakes and Midwest will want to brace for some bitter spells of wintry weather.

There will be a favorable storm track mid-season for the Midwest and Great Lakes, leading to above-normal precipitation and a few heavy snowfall events, Pastelok explained.

The storm track will eventually shift eastward during the latter part of the season, bringing the potential for some big coastal snowstorms.

A period of stormy and snowy weather may occur later in February or March as nor'easters can develop and impact the region, Pastelok cautioned.

Even with the potential for some big snow events, the season as a whole is forecast to finish with near- to- below-average snowfall for much of the Northeast and Ohio Valley. In contrast, the Upper Midwest could pick up near- to- above-normal snowfall. Winter storms could dish out a whopping 55 to 65 inches of snowfall this season in Minneapolis, which sees 54.7 inches of snow on average based on data from 1991 to 2020.

What about the polar vortex?

Earlier this year, the polar vortex dipped down over northeastern Canada in April, causing Easter in many parts of the U.S. to look more like Christmas. What's in store for the dreaded weather maker this coming winter? "We expect the polar vortex to strengthen again in the middle of the season this year," Pastolek said, explaining that a strong polar vortex means the brutally cold Arctic air associated with it remains locked in place over the North Pole region. He said, however, that the strengthening will "probably not be as strong and won't hold on as long as last year over the pole."

But if the polar vortex holds strong, that could spell milder conditions for a significant stretch across parts of the Eastern Seaboard, at least for part of the season. "A strong polar vortex around the pole mid-season would lead to a possible January thaw that could linger into February for the East," Pastelok said, expanding on what would drive the warmup for parts of the Northeast. "We are uncertain whether the vortex will play a role in the early cold shots in December, but it could have a brief role later in February or March."