Florida’s flawed seasons
And why the water cycle works better

Why chose the water cycle …

Over the seasons for tracking the year?

cycle

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.

swamp cross section
Swamp’s cycle of flood and drought

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.

Go to Cycles

fall

Anticipating fall
The long-awaited arrival of summer's end

It’s never a question of if, but when …

While sooner than latter is always preferred.

Fall is Florida’s most anticipated season

Fall is probably Florida’s most anticipated season. After a long summer stretch of endless heat and humidity punctuated by an uptick in tropical storms at the end (and just when it looks like fall with never arrive), the arrival of cooler and drier weather is a reason for celebration across the state.

Up North on the continent, Labor Day usual signals the reliable shift to crisper fall air. The conventional wisdom in south Florida is that fall is still 6-8 weeks away, or is it closer than we think?

The clues are gradual at first, and quite subtle, making them easy to miss. Botanically, cypress lead they way as they slowly senesce, first to a duller shade of green and then a mix of browns and finally to gray – just bare branches – as the needles fall to the grown. Meteorologically, starting in early October, the summer afternoon rain machine sputters to a stop. Also working in the background is the steady drop in daylight hours and eventually the daylight savings one-hour shift. If you didn’t notice before, by 6 o’clock it’s getting dark.

fall
When the first official cold front arrives

It’s about this time two that the first true blue cold fronts arrives. Not quite cold enough to wear long pants, it might inspire a long sleeve shirt and possibly a thin fleece.

Fall has arrived, at long last!

fall

Go to Fall

summer

Eternal summer
The season that refuses to end

Most tourist naturally assume:

Doesn’t summer in Florida last year-round?

Summer view at Naples Beach, Florida

While many a New England town has to wait around until the fourth of July for summer weather to fully take hold, only to watch it rapidly slip away in the weeks following Labor Day, summer in Florida is a solid six month affair.

To quote some of the locals: “It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity.” Anyone visiting Florida is astounded by the crush of super-heated dense air, thus giving rise to the maxim that, unlike the dry heat of the American Southwest where the shade offers reliably reprieve from the midday sun, shade does you no good in the Florida summer sun.

I implore you: Please do not listen to them. Among natives: the common wisdom is the complete opposite, to the point that you can usually tell a native Floridians in a crowd because they are the only ones standing in the shade. The shade makes as huge a difference as taking a dip in a pool or the Gulf or Atlantic coast.

Driving in a summer afternoon storm

Summer has personally grown on me over the years. The more I live in Florida, the more my blood has thinned. Or is it that I’m better at staying away from direct midday sun and finding the slivers of shade.

In a way I pity the winter tourists. They completely miss out on Florida’s afternoon summer storms. These events are truly something to behold, three-dimensional full body experience. Even better is the cool downbursts of air they produce, and sometimes even hail-sized raindrops that only melted minutes before they splash ice cold on your skin or down on the ground. Post storm, temperatures are easily a solid 10 degrees cooler, leaving you to ponder if it’s even summer at all.

Long live Florida’s endless summers, they get longer and more pleasant every year.

summer

Go to Summer

spring

Waterless spring defies odds
Drought, fire and wildflowers

Spring is usually the sopping-wet season …

When rivers rise and flowers bloom, right?

Does this look like spring?

Normally, yes. Or at least that’s how it works in most parts of the country (i.e. Up North on the continent). April rains bring May flowers as they say, and dry soils predictably turn moist and muddy.

The swamp flips the normal spring convention on its head, but with a twist. The cypress trees of the swamp still green up each spring with the most verdant hue you’ll ever see, but don’t confuse the lush appearance with being wet. A closer inspection of the same cypress trees will reveal a rapid recession or absence of water at the base of its fluted trunks.

Dry cypress trees in a swamp? Isn’t a swamp supposed by a perpetually soggy place where alligators roam and wading birds hunt for fish? Isn’t dry land out of place?

Blooming wildflowers after a spring wildfire

Seasonal drought is actually normal in the swamp, and it peaks (or bottoms out) in April and May. The reason? Blame it on a combination of yawning daylight hours, rising temperatures, thirsty tree roots, and most of all the lack of rain. By early May, just before the summer afternoon showers begin again, as much as 90 percent (or more) of the swamp goes dry. The same cypress that turned green can quickly brown, not from drought, but from wildfires when they strike, with the size of the blazes largely being controlled by moisture levels in the swamp’s low spots, or as doused by chance rain events.

The blackened earth quickly turns green following a wildfire, punctuated by wildflowers and an eventual return of the summer rains.

spring

Go to Spring

winter

Yes, Florida has a winter
But is it a season, or just measured in days?

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.

winter

Go to Winter

dry season

Is dry season rain a paradox?
Winter rains are the exception, not the rule

Believe it or not,

It rains during the winter in south Florida.

South Florida skies are reliably sunny in winter and spring

Even more quizzical, some of those individual rainfall events can be quite large, gulley washers even. The big difference with dry season rains is that they simply don’t add up over a monthly scale. One two inch rain event (however impressive) plus 29 zeros add up to a whopping two inches of rain. Compare that to the typically 7-9 inch totals of the core summer wet season months of June, July, August and September.

The water table reliably and steadily drops during the dry season, starting in November and lasting into May, as a result of the lack of steady daily rains. The caveat is when a big frontal storms pass through. Unlike summer storms that tend to be more local in nature, a winter cold front can dump water across the entire southern peninsula.

Another factor is the cooler temperatures. Winter storms don’t lose as much of their water to evapotranspiration back into the sky. The result is that every drop of winter rain counts as two, and also has a longer “staying power” on the landscape.

That changes in the latter half of the dry season somewhere around the vernal equinox when daylight hours start to grow, the cypress trees green out and air temperatures start to rise. Without rains in March, April and May, the swamp nosedives into a deep drought.

Cycles of flood and drought

How deep and how long will the spring drought last?

Usually not too far into May and rarely into June. It only takes a few weeks (sometimes less) for the summer rains to lift south Florida out of drought.

In summary: Yes, dry seasons are wet, and that’s not paradoxical. Just don’t count on them too much.

dry season

Go to Dry Season

wet season

Rainy or wet season?
Why one is the convention and the other is right

Florida has two seasons, not four:

A summer wet season and a winter dry season.

wet and dry
Summer wet (left) and winter dry (right) seasons

I know what you’re thinking: What happened to fall and spring. It’s a sad story in Florida, but they actually got lost. They somehow slipped away in a tide and, although we’re not a hundred percent sure, we think they are swirling around in a gyre in the mid Atlantic or possibly even washed up on the European shoreline, possibly in Belgium or France.

Joking aside, Florida also has its four celestial seasons. It’s just meteorologically we split the year in two: a six-month wet season from May to October and a six-month dry season from November to April. During the wet season, it rains almost every day, and usually in the form of afternoon thunderstorms. During the dry season, it still rains, but only periodically. Most days are sunny and cloudless, or less clouds. Technically, if you want to split water drops, the wet season doesn’t crank up to high gear until the later part of May and with the exception of tropical events, usually shuts down in early October. But for bookkeeping purposes, we lump May and October into the wet season.

wet and dry
Diagram depicting end of the wet season

Now here’s the tricky part: The term “wet” refers to the regular rains falling from the sky, not the sogginess factor of the water on the ground. Out in the Everglades and Big Cypress Swamp, the ground remains flooded with water for weeks (even months) after the “wet season” has ended.

For me, the term summer “rainy” season — not wet season — is a more accurate description of the season. However, climactically speaking, the term “wet and dry season” climate is the norm. So who am I to argue with the text books?

Final note: The Big Cypress Swamp on average receives around 42 inches of its 53 inch annual rainfall total during the 6-month wet season, or about 80 percent.

Wet or rainy, you get the point.

wet season

Go to Wet Season