Wildfires rage as humidity plunges throughout Florida peninsula

Florida wildfires

Wildfires were burning on Friday from the Everglades north into the panhandle, according to the Florida Forest Service. (Credit: Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services)

It’s been a busy wildfire season in Florida this spring and it seems to be peaking as we roll into the second week of April.

Thousands of acres were ablaze in Broward County and a fire just north of Disney World encompassed 475 acres, the Orlando Sentinel reported.

Most of Southwest Florida and parts of Central Florida were under a Red Flag Warning through Sunday, according to the National Weather Service.

The culprit is ultra-low humidity that followed last week’s cold front. Relative humidity levels plunged into the 30-percent range in Fort Myers and they were as low as 24 percent Saturday afternoon in Winter Haven.

The U.S. Drought Monitor expanded D-2 Severe Drought conditions in West-Central Florida last week, although Abnormally Dry conditions and a small area of Severe Drought were removed from North Florida and the panhandle.

Through the first eight days of the month, West Palm Beach has reported zero rainfall while Miami has received a trace and Fort Lauderdale and Naples reported 0.01 of an inch.

7 day forecast

Warm — but very dry — weather is in the forecast this week for West-Central Florida and much of the peninsula. The East Coast may see a few spotty showers as winds stream in off the Atlantic, the National Weather Service said. (Image credit: NWS-Tampa)

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THEME PARK PLANET: How’s the weather on super-Earth planet GJ 1132b today? Could be fair, partly cloudy or stormy — no one knows for sure — but you can bet there’s weather of some kind since scientists discovered last week that it has an atmosphere.

It “marks the first time that an atmosphere has been detected around an Earth-like planet other than Earth itself,” said John Southworth of Keele University in the UK.

“The planet is significantly hotter and a bit larger than Earth, so one possibility is that it is a ‘water world’ with an atmosphere of hot steam,” he said.

Kind of like Florida but without the theme parks, in other words. But it’s 39 light years away which would rule out weekend trips.

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Saharan air zaps South Florida storm totals; low humidity prompts fire warnings

Florida humidity levels

Relative humidity levels are expected to fall into the 20 percent range over much of the Florida peninsula on Friday, and the ultra-dry conditions will continue through the weekend. (Credit: NWS-Tampa)

SATURDAY MORNING LOWS: (These aren’t necessarily official lows, but they will be close): Miami, 58; West Palm Beach, 53; Fort Lauderdale, 56; Naples, 54; Wellington, 53; Okeechobee, 48; Palmdale, 39; Immokalee, 43; Homestead, 54; Key West, 67.

Vero Beach, 47; Fort Pierce, 45; Melbourne, 49; Daytona Beach, 45; Orlando, 46.

Gainesville, 43; Ocala, 41; Bartow, 43; Clearwater, 55; Sarasota, 50; Tampa, 56; Sanibel Island, 60.

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ORIGINAL POST: The rain that was supposed to be associated with the strong cold front that moved down the Florida peninsula on Thursday was short-circuited by an unexpected shot of Saharan air.

The dry Saharan air layer inserted a dose of atmospheric stability over South Florida just as storms were starting to form off the Gulf Coast and head across the peninsula toward the metro areas, the National Weather Service said.

In fact, South Florida had been under a “Marginal” threat for strong thunderstorms and severe weather by the Storm Prediction Center around mid-afternoon on Thursday.

But the dry air layer “allowed for the line of showers and thunderstorms over the western areas of South Florida early this afternoon to fall apart as it moved through South Florida,” forecasters said on Thursday.

By the time Friday dawned, rain chances had dropped to zero with dew points plunging into the 40s — a true wintry air mass that will keep things pleasant over the weekend and into early next week.

For the first week of April, most official observation sites around South Florida will be skunked in terms of precipitation, with nary a drop at Palm Beach International Airport or Miami International, a trace in Fort Lauderdale and a hundredth of an inch in Naples.

Interior Collier County was really the only game in town for precipitation on Thursday, with 0.13 of an inch falling in Immokalee. To the north in Hendry County, LaBelle managed to pick up about a quarter of an inch.

Things were a little different in Central Florida, where Fort Pierce reported 0.74 of an inch of rain and Vero Beach checked in with a hefty 2.50 inches. Tampa reported 0.59 of an inch, St. Petersburg had 0.61 of an inch, Fort Myers reported 0.04 of an inch, but Sarasota only picked up a trace.

Most of the Florida peninsula was under a Red Flag warning Friday for ultra-dry conditions that are a threat for wildfires. The warning will likely be extended into the weekend, the National Weather Service said.

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HOT TOPIC: A new study contends that CO2 levels could climb over the next 100 to 200 years to levels not seen since the Triassic Period 200 million years ago, when there were no polar ice caps and predecessors of dinosaurs roamed the Earth.

By the 23rd century, the climate could be as hot as it was 420 million years ago, according to researchers from the University of Southampton in the UK. That’s assuming carbon-based fuels continue to be burned at their current rate, which would put CO2 levels at around Triassic levels of 2,000 parts per million (they soared passed 400 pmm in 2016).

“However, because the Sun was dimmer back then, the net climate forcing 200 million years ago was lower than we would experience in such a high CO2 future,” said Gavin Foster, lead author of the study and professor of isotope geochemistry at Southampton.

“So not only will the resultant climate change be faster than anything the Earth has seen for millions of years, the climate that will exist is likely to have no natural counterpart, as far as we can tell, in at least the last 420 million years.”

Forecasters predict below average Atlantic hurricane season

IGINAL 2016_Atlantic_hurricane_season_summary_map

The 2016 season had several Florida and U.S. East Coast threats. Forecasters are now trying to get a handle on what 2017 may look like. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

THURSDAY UPDATE: Colorado State University joined other forecasters this week in calling for a “slightly” below normal Atlantic hurricane season.

Hurricane researcher Philip Klotzbach, joined by Michael Bell, issued a forecast for 11 named storms, four hurricanes and two major hurricanes.

The big reason for the reduced forecast totals is roughly the same — a developing El Niño in the tropical Pacific is expected to increase wind shear in the Atlantic, making it more difficult for storms to spin up.

They added: “The tropical Atlantic has anomalously cooled over the past month and the far North Atlantic is relatively cold, potentially indicative of a negative phase of the Atlantic Multi-Decadal Oscillation. We anticipate a below-average probability for major hurricanes making landfall along the United States coastline and in the Caribbean.”

They said Accumulated Cyclone Energy (ACE) would likely be about 75 percent of average, and that the chances of a major hurricane hitting the Florida peninsula — or anywhere on the U.S. East Coast — was 24 percent compared with 31 percent in an average year.

The chance of a hurricane hitting anywhere on the U.S. coast was set at 42 percent, compared with 52 percent in an average year, they said.

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ORIGINAL POST: A below normal 2017 Atlantic hurricane season was predicted Wednesday by two major forecasting agencies as an anticipated El Niño take shape during the summer and fall.

The UK-based Tropical Storm Risk predicted 11 named storms, four hurricanes and two intense hurricanes Category 3 or higher.

AccuWeather also pointed to a potential El Niño while predicting 10 named storms, five hurricanes and three majors. Forecasters said three named storms could make landfall in the U.S. this year.

AccuWeather is concerned with very warm water in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, which experts said “threaten to support at least one high impact hurricane similar to Joaquin in 2015 and Matthew in 2016.”

TSR said there’s a 51 percent chance that Accumulated Cyclone Energy (ACE Index) — a measure of the strength and duration of all storms during the hurricane season — will be below the average posted for 1950 through 2016.

“Should the TSR forecast for 2017 verify it would mean that the ACE index total for 2013-2017 would be easily the lowest 5-year total since 1990-1994, and would be equivalent to a typical 5-year total experienced during the inactive phase of Atlantic hurricane activity between 1970 and 1994,” they said. “However, it should be stressed that the precision of hurricane outlooks issued in April is low and that large uncertainties remain for the 2017 hurricane season.”

El Niño, a phenomenon characterized by warmer than average water in the tropical Pacific, tends to tamp down tropical activity in the Atlantic by increasing wind shear. Other major factors in storm generation include sea surface temperatures, dry air and atmospheric pressure.

April forecasts almost always show the least amount of skill, with numbers coming more into line with forecasts issued in June and August.

Last year’s April TSR forecast was for 12 named storms, six hurricanes and two major hurricanes. The actual numbers were 15, seven and four.

Forecasts on the eve of hurricane season — which begins June 1 — were closer for all agencies with TSR predicting 17 named storms, Colorado State University predicting 14 and NOAA predicting 10-16.

Colorado State will release its April forecast on Thursday.

New Hurricane Center analysis of Matthew highlights close call for Florida

Hurricane Matthew

Hurricane Matthew rips through the northwestern Bahamas on October 6. (Credit: NASA via NHC)

The National Hurricane Center released its detailed analysis of Hurricane Matthew on Monday, and the report reveals just how close South Florida’s East Coast came to experiencing a major hurricane.

The eastern edge of the eyewall clipped West End on Grand Bahama Island late on October 6, bringing Category 3 winds to the island just 67 miles from Palm Beach. Although the barrier island was roughed up as Matthew churned north-northwest toward the East-Central Florida Coast, a few miles inland at Palm Beach International Airport the highest winds were clocked at 50 mph.

Elsewhere highest winds were 45 mph at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International and 35 mph at Miami International. Matthew edged closer to the coast in Central and North Florida, where Daytona Beach recorded winds of 71 mph.

Vero Beach recorded a gust of 74 mph, according to the NHC, St. Augustine had an 86 mph gust, and New Smyrna Beach had an 83 mph gust.

“Much of Florida east of Interstate 75 and U.S. Highway 27, and north of Lake Okeechobee and West Palm Beach experienced downed trees, trees falling on to homes, roof damage, and downed powerlines, along with stripped off awnings, siding, and other non-structural building features such as billboards and facades,” the NHC’s Stacy Stewart noted in the report.

“The combination of high storm surge and wave action eroded beaches along coastal areas of east-central and northeastern Florida, and washed away boats and automobiles. Beach erosion was described as moderate from Palm Beach County northward to Indian River County, and was moderate to severe in many locations from Brevard County to the St. Mary’s River. Damage to beaches and dunes are estimated to be $29 million in
Palm Beach County.”

The World Meteorological Organization last week retired the name Hurricane Matthew, as well as Hurricane Otto, which means neither will be used again for Atlantic storms.

Matthew reached Category 5 status on September 30 in the Caribbean and killed 585 people — more than 500 of them in Haiti — as it pushed north toward the Bahamas. It was expected to brush South Florida’s East Coast, but a last-minute jog toward the northeast as it approached Grand Bahama Island saved the day.

Matthew made landfall in South Carolina as a Category 1 hurricane on October 8.

Otto was a late November storm in the southern Caribbean that made landfall in Nicaragua as a Category 3. It later made it to the Pacific as a tropical storm after causing 18 deaths in Central America.

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COMING COLD SNAP: Saturday’s forecast high in West Palm Beach is only 73, which would be just 4 degrees off the all-time record cool temperature for the date of 69, set in 2009.

Saturday morning’s forecast low of 58 would be well off the record low of 45 set in 1971.

Another shot of open-window-weather likely by week’s end

South Florida forecast

Spring weather has definitely sprung around South Florida, but a shot of cool air is due next weekend. (Credit: NWS-Miami)

It’s tempting to conclude that the cool weather season is over in South Florida, that the A/C is set, the windows are closed, and the light jackets are returned to the back of the closet.

Not so fast, though, National Weather Service forecasters say.

An exceptionally strong cold front appears poised to roll through the Florida peninsula at the end of the week, delivering a shot of January-type air that should produce another round of open-window-weather as we close in on the Passover/ Easter holidays.

The week looks pre-summer sultry, with highs in the mid-80s even on the Atlantic coast and lows dipping only to the mid-70s at night. Balmy winds will blow out of the southeast, and with the April sun high in the sky you’ll be cranking up the car’s A/C to high every time you jump behind the wheel.

But the cold front that slides through Thursday night looks for real (at least for now), driving temperatures down into the low 60s by Saturday with highs only in the mid-70s. It’s worth noting that 75 is the average high around South Florida in January.

Before the front arrives: “South Florida will be under prevailing south-southwesterly flow though the period, with only minimal east coast sea-breeze development,” NWS forecasters said in their Sunday analysis. “The result will be very warm temperatures, potentially approaching record highs, in the mid-upper 80s and low 90s.”

Forecasters are calling for seasonable temperatures next weekend, and much drier air should make for some very pleasant conditions.

If the forecast pans out, though, and highs only reach 75 with lows around 60, that would be around 5 degrees cooler than normal highs and lows of 80 and 64. (In fact, the normal high ticks up to 82 in Miami on Wednesday.)

Of course, strong cold fronts in April aren’t all that unusual, although record cool maximum temperatures creep into the mid-70s by the middle of the month.

Record lows in West Palm Beach are in the 50s all the way through the end of May, but it’s interesting to note that from April 1 to May 31, only three record lows have been recorded in this century — the April 16 low of 50 set in 2007, the April 24 low of 53 set in 2012, and the April April 25 low of 50 set in 2005.

None of the record lows in May were set in this century, although the May 1 record of 54 was set in 1999.

On the other hand, 23 low temperature records in May were set before 1930 in West Palm Beach; and 19 record lows in April occurred prior to 1930.

CoCoRaHS observers

FLORIDA SHINES: The state came through with 135 new sign-ups for the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail & Snow Network (CoCoRaHS), the most in the nation during the March drive for volunteers.  You can sign up anytime, of course — all you need is a rain gauge. See https://www.cocorahs.org/. (Credit: NWS-Melbourne)

Severe Drought conditions spread through Florida peninsula

Florida’s drought continues to worsen, with Abnormally Dry conditions to outright Severe Drought now affecting nearly the entire state.

In South Florida, all but the extreme southeastern portion of Miami-Dade County and Broward County are at least Abnormally Dry, and Severe Drought has spread to Gulf coastal areas including Fort Myers.

Florida drought
Image credit: U.S. Drought Monitor

Parts of North Florida are now also under Severe Drought, according to the latest analysis by the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Ninety-day rainfall has averaged 30 to 40 percent of normal in parts of South Florida, analysts said.

How bad are the actual numbers? West Palm Beach is now almost 3 inches behind on normal rainfall for March, and even that doesn’t really tell the whole story. In the last 12 months, Palm Beach International Airport has had only two with above normal rainfall — December, which came in at 0.09 of an inch over average, and May, which was 0.44 of an inch over average.

On the other hand, last July was an incredible 4.17 inches below normal in precipitation, a problem made all the more devastating since it was also the hottest month ever recorded in West Palm Beach.

Other March rainfall shortages around the state: Key West, 1.05 inches; Marathon, 1.92 inches; Naples, 2.14 inches; Fort Myers, 2.63 inches; Tampa, 1.97 inches; Fort Pierce, 2.31 inches; Vero Beach, 2.36 inches; Orlando, 3.55 inches (just 0.09 of an inch has fallen all month); Daytona Beach, 3.03 inches; Jacksonville, 2.76 inches; and Gainesville, 3.53 inches.

Precipitation chances across the Florida peninsula look a little better over the next week, but it may be barely enough to wash the dust off your car.

A frontal system pushing showers and thunderstorms through the Gulf of Mexico looked robust on Friday, but the system is expected to wash out over South Florida during the weekend.

Another front mid-week — and still another stronger system popping up on forecast model maps toward the end of next week — could start softening the hard edges of the drought, but it will take an early start to the rainy season to get us back on track.

For now, more below normal precipitation is in the longer-term outlook by NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center, not only for Florida but for the entire tier of southern states, from Texas to the East Coast and north to Virginia.

Chances for wet weekend on the wane for South Florida, forecasters say

Chances for any significant rainfall in parched South Florida are dwindling as the weekend approaches, the National Weather Service said Wednesday.

While a low pressure system and accompanying cold front pushes east across the eastern U.S. and into the Mid-Atlantic, triggering potentially severe weather, it’s looking as if the front could weaken substantially before providing the area with any much-need rain.

Precipitation probabilities peak at around 30 percent Friday and Friday night, forecasters said, then level off to around 20 percent Saturday and Sunday as the front lingers in the area.

“While models show the bulk of activity over the Gulf of Mexico weakening substantially as it nears South Florida later on Friday, will have to watch for potential of more organized convection holding together,” forecasters said in their Wednesday discussion.

NOAA’s Weather Prediction Center shows maximum precipitation amounts through the weekend of around a quarter of an inch around South Florida, and less as you head south toward the Keys.

The front is expected to wash out over the area on Sunday.

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800px-GreenMountainWindFarm_Fluvanna_2004

OUTLOOK CLOUDY: As the U.S. gears up to put a greater emphasis on coal for energy needs, other parts of the world are seeing a brighter future for renewable resources.

The U.S. is already well behind the rest of the world when it comes to renewable energy, and the question is now whether this gap will widen further in the coming years. President Trump signed an executive order Tuesday wiping out previous climate change directives that would have closed many coal-fired power plants.

Hydroelectricity, solar and wind accounted for about 15 percent of U.S. electricity generation in 2016, according to Nature.com. That was almost double compared to a decade ago, when renewables accounted for just 8 percent of the market.

But they accounted for 24 percent of power generation in 2016 worldwide.

A new study by the University of California at Berkeley suggests wind and solar power will take center stage in Africas as power needs triple on the continent by 2030.

Researchers identified potential for solar and wind farms in 21 nations in southern and eastern Africa, from Libya and Egypt to the east coast of South Africa. The reliance on wind and solar to fuel the growth would save billions of dollars in infrastructure costs across the continent, they said.

About a third of Africa uses hydroelectric power, but the reliability of that is in doubt as the potential for drought increases due to climate change.

“The surprising find is that the wind and solar resources in Africa are absolutely gigantic, and something you could tap into for relatively low-cost,” said senior author Duncan Callaway, a UC Berkeley associate professor of energy and resources. “But we need to be thinking now about strategies for fostering international collaboration to tap into the resource in a way that is going to maximize its potential while minimizing its impact.”

Image: Green Mountain Energy Wind Farm, near Fluvanna, Texas via Wikimedia Commons.