- Kimberly Miller Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
A crush of arctic air is threatening parts of Palm Beach County with freezing temperatures this week that may trigger shelter openings, leave frost-damaged crops and challenge the fortitude of cold-intolerant South Floridians.
The chilly assault will be at its strongest Thursday and Friday when the forecast for Palm Beach International Airport is for a low of 38 degrees at 7 a.m. Thursday, with Wellington dipping as low as 36 Friday morning, and areas east of Lake Okeechobee hitting a frigid 33 degrees early Friday.
If the forecast holds true, it would be the coldest air measured at the airport since February 2015, according to the National Weather Service in Miami. If it drops below 38 degrees, it will be the coldest air since the icy bluster of 2010 that began in January with the coldest 12-day stretch on record, and ended with the coldest December on record.
Wind chill temperatures during the brunt of this cold snap could be in the 20s, including in Palm Beach County.
“We’re going to be running almost 20 degrees below normal,” said Chris Fisher, a meteorologist at the NWService in Miami. “It wouldn’t surprise me if an isolated spot gets colder than forecast, but if there is a surprise like that, it would be inland.”
This cool snap is not ‘normal’
Normal daytime temperatures for this time of year are 75 degrees in West Palm Beach. The high temperature Thursday may not even reach 60.
The hard punch of winter has already hit the Panhandle, where the NWS issued freeze warnings, wind chill advisories and winter weather watches from Jacksonville to Pensacola. The City of Jacksonville closed its offices in “an abundance of caution.” Gainesville could get as low as 23 degrees this week.
While a mix of snow and freezing rain was a possibility in portions of the Panhandle, forecasters in Melbourne and Miami had to dispel rumors of snow that were circulating on social media. Purported images of flakes falling were just “mist being blown around by gusty winds,” Melbourne meteorologists said.
A wind gust of 41mph was recorded near Lake Worth on Monday, offering hearty kite boarders high-flying rides in the spitting rain.
“It’s beautiful, and a good beginning to 2018,” said kite boarder Javier DeVincensi, of Lake Worth. “We’ve been waiting and watching for this.”
Overcast skies, and the looming chill, also didn’t concern Tazeen Ali, a resident of London, who had breakfast Monday at Benny’s on the Beach in Lake Worth. The city closed the pier in the morning because of high surf, but Benny’s remained open.
“Last year we came in August and it was too hot,” Ali said. “For us, this is very nice and pleasant.”
But Ali will be on a flight back to London when the coldest temperatures arrive early Thursday.
“We’re going as low as 37 degrees Wednesday night at the airport in West Palm Beach,” said AccuWeather senior meteorologist Dan Kottlowski about his forecast. “Thursday night could be even colder.”
Why is this happening?
Two atmospheric forces are working together to bring this kind of cold to South Florida.
The first is a ridge of high pressure shoved like a knitting needle deep into Canada that is forcing the jet stream, and all the arctic air behind it, to dig into the southeast. It’s the reason for the stretch of sub-freezing temperatures in the Midwest to Northeast that was blamed Tuesday for at least nine deaths, according to the Associated Press.
The second system is an area of low pressure forecast to form off the coast of Florida that will drag the cold air from the north farther into the state with its counterclockwise winds. Even Key West will feel the chill, dropping to a forecast 55 degrees Thursday and Friday — 10 degrees below normal.
“If it weren’t for this storm, we probably would not get as cold as we are,” Kottlowski said about the low pressure system. “It’s going to track north, intensify, and become a blizzard for parts of coastal New England and Maine.”
The county prepares for worst
Palm Beach County emergency manager Bill Johnson said a decision on whether shelters will open will be made Wednesday morning. He said the last time shelters opened was in early 2015.
Residents may want to cover cold-vulnerable plants with old sheets or towels, said Bill Schall, Palm Beach County’s extension agent. Vulnerable plants include succulents, new transplants, seedlings and aglaonema, or Chinese evergreen. Also, expensive or rare orchids should be brought inside or protected.
“There are some plants that get damaged even if it doesn’t go down to freezing,” Schall said. “This last cold snap we had, I noticed some damage on the more tender hibiscus leaves.”
Barbara Miedema, spokeswoman for the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida, said vegetable farms could experience scattered frost damage with this cold snap. It’s possible vegetable growers will hire helicopters to fly over their fields to help mix the warmer air aloft with the dense cold air at the surface, she said.
“This probably won’t be a big deal for citrus,” Kottlowski said. “Vegetable crops are a different story.”