Where Go Hydrology explores seasonal change
How do you best describe …
Every shade of green on the swamp?
The term is called the swamp mosaic. Bright green are slash pine and palmetto. Dark green is a hardwood hammock. Brownish green are senescing cypress. It’s a bit of an optical illusion looking at the photo above. The highest ground is actually the hardwood hammock, even though it looks recessed. And the lowest ground is the cypress strand despite its appearance that it is higher up. Actually, I take that back: Even lower than the cypress is the open pond to the right. I would venture a guess that’s about 4 feet deep, about half the depth of the water in the adjacent cypress and the hammock being completely dry. And I almost forgot. About mid photo, a little to the right, is a marl prairie. It’s flooded shin deep with water.
People winter (the verb) in Florida …
To avoid true winter (the noun) up north.
South Florida beckons as a land of perpetual warmth, and eternal green, where you can recreate outside in a bathing suite, and even go swimming placid gulf during the core winter months while everyone else up north is stuck inside staring out at bare branches, snow drifts and leaden skies.
Lost in the shuffle is the plight of the native Floridian. As tourists rejoice in sandals and short-sleeve shirts, year-rounders walk beside them donned in fleeces, scarves and even long pants. Among all the verdant green palms and ample sunshine, the more observant tourists who venture into the interior swamps may be struck by a peculiar site: a forest of trees without any leaves. Not dead at all, the bare branches are just one of many signs of winter in south Florida.
But winter is defined by falling snow, not cypress needles — right? And if south Florida does have a winter, what are the other signs?
Believe it or not, south Florida gets quite a few cold fronts. How cold? And if not snow, what qualifies as a wintery day in a subtropical clime? To answer that question, we go into deep research mode to uncover the meteorological, botanical and cultural clues.
Why chose the water cycle …
Over the seasons for tracking the year?
Don’t get me wrong: The four seasons are great. And let’s also not forget, officially they are celestially defined by the position of the earth’s tilt as it rotates around the sun even. That being said, we tend to think of them meteorologically the most, or in other words, in terms of the weather.
That’s where the seasons and the calendar year for that matter fail us in Florida. For one, the meteorological seasons are skewed quite significantly from the normal continental norms. Summer-like weather lasts for six months, not three. And when fall weather will arrive is anyone’s guess. As for winter the season, it’s more accurately defined by a spattering of days. And spring? I’m not really sure other than the air is drier but it can get quite hot.
Using January as the start of the year in Florida is also a complete fail. (Talk about getting the New Year off on the wrong start!) Why? January is smack dab in the middle of Florida’s dry season. How can we start a new year when the season still has another 4-5 months on the books? That’s where the water year comes in handy. It starts in May when the water table bottoms out and the wet season is about to begin.
So the big solution calls for a two-pronged approach: We replace the water cycle with the seasons and aligning our new annual clock with May, not January, as the start of the new year. And here’s the twist: we don’t have to drop the seasons and calendar year completely. We keep them in the mix, too. It’s not about replacing the old regime completely, it’s about custom crafting it to fit into Florida’s unique meteorologic mold.
The water year, wet season and dry season help us simplify the seasonal math.
Yes, Florida has a panhandle …
But usually its peninsula comes to mind first.
Christopher Columbus never stepped foot in Florida, (c. 1451 – 1506), let alone anywhere on the North American mainland. He got close in the Bahamas, and then sailed down to Cuba and Hispaniola which he promptly mistook for India, thus giving the natives a name that still sticks: Indians; even if the name “New India” never took hold.
In steps Amerigo Vespucci (c. 1454 – 1512). He took sail seven years after Columbus, was only a visitor (not a captain), and only saw the south American coast yet somehow it’s his name that made it on the map for the two continents that formed the “new found lands.”
Newfoundland, of course, was discovered Leif Ericson (c. 970 – c. 1020) who outflanked both Columbus and Vespucci by 500 years where he set up a Viking camp in Vinland to (among other things) grow grapes. Had only he landed in Florida he could have grown oranges instead. Although that’s not a hundred (or even fifty) percent true: Florida conspicuously devoid of oranges when Juan Ponce De Leon (c. 1474 – 1521) first set eyes on it in 1512, the same year that Vespucci died. The Puerto Rican governors interests lay not in citrus, but water -– and the “Fountain of Youth” to be exact.
He never found it, but he was looking in the right place given the bounty of Florida’s first order magnitude springs. And he also gave Florida its name, with the important caveat (as mapped above) that he wasn’t thinking “just about the peninsula” — he had the greater continental landmass in mind. It has a nice ring to it, and had a cartographer so long ago only penned the map differently, it may very well have been …
The United States of Florida!
South Florida has one wet season …
But the final tallies vary geographically.
For example, Lake Okeechobee usually gets the lowest amount of wet season rain, around 33 inches. Compare that to the Lower East Coast (Miami), Big Cypress and Southwest Coast that averages 43 inches of wet season rain. South Florida Wide, the number falls somewhere in between at around 38 inches. For water drop counting purposes, we compute wet season rain for the six-month period from the start of May to the end of October. Thus, it’s too early to call the final tally yet, but we are pretty close so it’s worth taking a look. As stands, we’re a little below the typical average. That could still yet change, as the clouds have until Halloween to get their final drops in.
BTW: October is better understood as a transition month between the wet and dry season, but we lump its entirety into the wet season rainfall tally for book keeping purposes, and to be consistent from year to year.
It’s a long summer in south Florida …
And then suddenly like a flip of a switch the rains stop.
At least that’s how it seemed a week ago.
The late September slug of air had us convinced the summer rain machine had shut down for the year. Ten days later more humid air has returned, and the rain machine has even shown some signs of life. But the bigger picture is it’s starting to sputter off. Usually by Columbus Day (early-mid October), the winter dry season has begun even if from a monthly book-keeping sense we wait until November 1st to start the official dry season clock.
Although not an official cold front …
And it’s still possible to overheat in the midday sun:
The cooler morning and evening temperatures are a welcome relief. Daytime highs and still ramping up into the high 80s and nighttime lows are staying above 70, but with daylight hours on the wane and last week’s dose of a drier air front, its as cool an early October as I can remember.
Fall is definitely in the air.
It was shaping up to be a subpar summer …
And then September kicked into high gear.
The swamp finally peaks, but for how long?
Back to back weeks pushed the swamp to its annual peak.
Then came the recent front of dry air?
Overnight the rain machine shut down.
Or is there still time for it to rev back up?
A flooded marl prairie with periphyton
I‘m never one to complain about the start of fall, but seriously – summer was finally starting to get interesting. It’s good to see the swamp’s sheet of water spreading out.