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‘Not at all surprising:’ New climate normals show Florida is getting even hotter

Florida is nearly two degrees warmer during winter months, according to the latest NOAA data.
Fred Colpack, 74, of Clearwater, cools off with a shower while visiting the Dunedin Causeway on Monday, Aug. 24, 2020. According to Spectrum Bay News 9: a Heat Advisory was in effect at that time. New data from NOAA says that Florida air temperatures are getting hotter.
Fred Colpack, 74, of Clearwater, cools off with a shower while visiting the Dunedin Causeway on Monday, Aug. 24, 2020. According to Spectrum Bay News 9: a Heat Advisory was in effect at that time. New data from NOAA says that Florida air temperatures are getting hotter. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published May 7

For seasoned Florida natives, your memory isn’t shot. Florida is hotter on average in 2021 than decades past.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration releases new climate normals every 10 years in order to establish what weather patterns are “average.” The agency uses “normals” to judge how daily, monthly and annual climate conditions compare to what’s normal for a specific location.

NOAA released new climate normals Tuesday, which now measures from 1991 to 2020. It showed Tampa Bay’s “average high temperature” through the year jumped by a few degrees. The summertime average increased from 89.5 degrees to 90.9. In winter, the temperature rose from 71.2 to 73 degrees, and in spring, it increased from 81.1 to 83.

Scientists say the increase in temperatures is worsening many types of disasters, including storms, heatwaves, floods and droughts throughout the nation.

Annual U.S. temperature compared to the 20th-century average for each U.S. Climate Normals period from 1901-1930 (upper left) to 1991-2020 (lower right). Places where the normal annual temperature was 1.25 degrees or more colder than the 20th-century average are darkest blue; places where normal annual temperature was 1.25 degrees or more warmer than the 20th-century average are darkest red. Maps by NOAA Climate.gov, based on analysis by Jared Rennie, North Carolina Institute for Climate Studies/NCEI.
Annual U.S. temperature compared to the 20th-century average for each U.S. Climate Normals period from 1901-1930 (upper left) to 1991-2020 (lower right). Places where the normal annual temperature was 1.25 degrees or more colder than the 20th-century average are darkest blue; places where normal annual temperature was 1.25 degrees or more warmer than the 20th-century average are darkest red. Maps by NOAA Climate.gov, based on analysis by Jared Rennie, North Carolina Institute for Climate Studies/NCEI. [ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ]

NOAA officials said there was an obvious reason behind the increase in temperature averages: Global warming.

Dr. Ryan McMinds, a researcher of coral reef ecology and evolution at the University of South Florida, agreed. He said the latest numbers were both concerning but not at all surprising.

“We’re already seeing the effects of climate change on natural ecosystems,” he said. “We’ve been concerned for some time.”

While an increase of a couple of degrees may seem trivial to some, any increase in temperature can have serious effects on the environment, McMinds said. This is especially true of Florida’s already-vulnerable coral reefs.

The temperature of the ocean surrounding Florida is rising at a rate that even surpasses air temperature increases, he said.

“The tipping point for the ecology of reefs is extinction and that is a possibility,” McMinds said. “Climate change is threatening the permanent existence of coral species, and, once they’re gone, there is no way to get them back.”

Florida’s coral reefs — and the estimated $1.1 billion annual economic impact from tourism they bring — suffer.

Also tied to increasing air and sea-surface temperatures are stronger hurricanes, according to Phil Klotzbach, the lead hurricane researcher of Colorado State University.

“Hurricanes live off of warm ocean water,” he said. “So more warm ocean water means more fuel for the hurricanes.”

The warming of ocean waters has also led to an increase in the number of tropical systems. The average number of named tropical storms in a given year is now 14, up from an average of 12 between 1981-2010. The average number of hurricanes has also increased from six to seven, according to data released by NOAA in April.

For scientists like McMinds, the steady rise in temperatures is more than just data points on a spreadsheet.

“It’s honestly a psychological problem for a lot of scientists,” McMinds said. “There is really no doubt in our community that climate change is devastating these ecosystems. These last couple of years have been awful and massive amounts of coral have died. Scientists are struggling with this to the point it’s making it hard to do our work.”