Last month was the hottest February on record for South Florida, obliterating measurements that date back more than 100 years.
But a wrecking ball of a winter storm is about to bust up the sizzle with a fury that meteorologists predict could bring up to 15-foot seas to Palm Beach County’s coastline and send life-threatening flooding into the Northeast.
A low pressure system, whose power was still in debate just days ago, is now expected to undergo an explosive strengthening as it harasses states from Virginia to Maine with peak wind gusts of hurricane force possible along the coast. The forecast drop in atmospheric pressure of at least 24 millibars in 24 hours or less is called bombogenesis.
In Massachusetts, voluntary evacuations of some coastal communities during high tides have been recommended with forecasters in the Boston office of the National Weather Service calling the advancing storm a “life and death” situation.
“Exacerbating the event will be the highest tides of the month — more than a foot above average, associated with the full moon,” said Weather Underground co-founder Jeff Masters in his Cat 6 blog. “The Northeast U.S. will receive a punishing assault from a large storm surge and high waves that will last through three high tide cycles.”
For South Florida, the storm will punch through a cold front Friday, dropping temperatures from a Thursday high of 85 to a forecast high Saturday of 75. Sunday morning temperatures are expected to be in the mid- to high-50s along the coast, with inland areas dipping into the 40s.
The cold weather will be an abrupt change to February, which ended with an average temperature in West Palm Beach of 75.3 degrees, breaking a 59-year old record of 74.4 set in 1959.
“I’m still peeling from two crazy sunburns that I got last month. It was hot,” said Grace Kalinsky, who recently moved to West Palm Beach and was enjoying the sun Thursday at City Place. “But I’m from Connecticut so everything feels hot and humid here.”
Fort Lauderdale, Miami and Naples also broke their February heat records. Florida Climatologist David Zierden said “without a doubt” Florida will break a heat record statewide for warmest February, and do it by as much as 2 to 3 degrees.
“A majority of weather stations from South Florida to the Panhandle are setting records, or at least ranked second or third,” Zierden said. “Some stations are running 6 to 8 degrees above normal, and 8 to 10 degrees above normal in North Florida.”
The Climate Prediction Center had forecast a warmer and drier winter for South Florida, but January didn’t cooperate. It ended a 22-month streak of abnormally warm months with an average temperature that was 2.9 degrees below normal statewide.
AccuWeather senior meteorologist Dan Kottlowski said February’s weather was more in sync with the La Niña climate pattern dominating the atmosphere.
La Niña tends to straighten out the jet stream, keeping winter weather confined to its north and blocking cold fronts from making it into South Florida. Instead, a clockwise-churning high pressure system sat near Florida through most of February, blowing in warm east winds, with sunny skies and little rain.
The U.S. Drought Monitor tagged Palm Beach County Thursday in its weekly report for being “abnormally dry” — the lowest level on its five-tier drought scale. Since Jan. 1, the county has received about 3.3 inches of rain, which is 59 percent of normal.
Zierden said the “abnormally dry” designation only looks at rainfall amounts.
“Water levels in Lake Okeechobee, the Everglades, Big Cypress National Park and the water conservation areas are in decent shape from all the rain this summer,” Zierden said.
But he said the water levels will be something to watch over the next two to three months as the dry season persists.
On Thursday, Lake Okeechobee was at 14.86 feet above sea level, within the comfort zone of the Army Corps of Engineers, which likes to keep it between 12.5 and 15.5 feet above sea level.
The cold front pushing through Friday isn’t expected to bring much rain, with a 30 percent chance of showers in the forecast. A high risk of rip currents and beach erosion are expected Sunday through Tuesday.
Temperatures Friday should reach into the mid-80s with an overnight low of 64. Saturday and Sunday are expected to see daytime highs in the low- to mid-70s.
Philadelphia native Megan Cottee, who lives in West Palm Beach, is looking forward to the cool down.
“Florida is just hot in general and it all kind of blends together,” she said Thursday while eating lunch at City Place. “Seventy-five degrees would be a summer day in Philadelphia, shorts and bikinis and all that.”