The first four months of 2017 were the hottest in 122 years for Florida and much of the southeast, continuing a streak of sizzling temperatures that are forecast to run high through summer.
Florida’s average temperature January through April was 66.6 degrees, a hefty four 4 degrees above the 20th century normal level, according to a report from the National Centers for Environmental Information.
The state simmered from the Panhandle through Central Florida with temperatures that broke heat records dating to 1895, while South Florida’s more tepid temps left it in the top-10 warmest stretch for January through April.
“This is our 15th consecutive month of above-normal temperatures,” said Florida climatologist David Zierden. “January 2016 was the last month that had below-normal temperatures.”
And that was an anomaly in a pattern of warmth. Before January 2016, there were 10 consecutive months of above-normal temperatures.
Zierden said the prolonged warm weather contributed to the 127 wildfires that burned statewide Monday, forced ranchers to buy hay because pasture lands are suffering from drought, and led to an explosion of whiteflies that are damaging some vegetable crops.
Lake Okeechobee was down to 11.43 feet above sea level Monday — the lowest it’s been since 2011.
“For over two years now, the state has consistently, and to a large degree, been warmer than normal,” Zierden said.
Florida wasn’t alone in setting a heat record this year. Fourteen states stretching from the southwest to the mid-Atlantic also reached their highest average temperatures for the period of January through April. Forty states were considered “much warmer” than average through April.
“The lack of rain was a big factor,” said William Schmitz, a service climatologist for the Southeast Regional Climate Center. “If it’s really wet and cloudy, it doesn’t get as warm.”
The four-month heat stretch follows the second-warmest year for the U.S. and Florida. While 2016 did not claim a first-place title, scientists called the breadth of the warmth “unparalleled” in the nation’s climate history.
Globally, 2016 was the third record-hot year in a row.
So far this year, 16 Florida cities are running record hot, including Fort Lauderdale, Miami, Pensacola, Jacksonville, Orlando, and Tampa, according to the Southeast Regional Climate Center.
Meteorologists had trouble pointing to a single weather pattern that may have steered this year’s heat.
While La Niña can lead to drier and warmer weather in the Southeast, it had mostly disappeared by late January and February.
Andrew Shashy, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Jacksonville, said fewer strong cold fronts pushed through Florida as the jet stream stayed more to the north. The Bermuda High also likely worked to dissipate fronts, drying them out before they could bring much rain to the state.
“Frontal boundaries may have moved in for a brief time, but then going into the Northeast, and we’re back into that warm pattern again,” Shashy said.
The Climate Prediction Center’s forecast through July for Florida is for above-normal temperatures, and Zierden said he wouldn’t be surprised if 2017 was another record-warm year for the Sunshine State.
He was hesitant to pin it all on global warming.
“This consistent above-average temperature trend for the past two years makes you ask the question if it’s global warming,” Zierden said. “A two-year period is not enough to exclusively attribute it to climate change, but it is certainly enough to ask the question.”