A fat jet of tropical air took aim at Florida last month, breaking a more than century-old record for the wettest May statewide and helping muster an early tropical cyclone named Alberto.
From Key West to Pensacola, Florida averaged 9.23 inches of rain in May, topping the 2009 record of 8.91 inches in measurements that have been logged since 1895.
The rain totals were released Wednesday by the National Centers for Environmental Information, which also reported last month was the warmest May on record for the contiguous U.S.
Jake Crouch, a climate scientist with the centers, said Florida’s waterlogged month was notable not just for breaking a rain record, but for crushing it.
“That’s a pretty big part of the story in Florida,” Crouch said. “We usually don’t break records by that big of a margin.”
In West Palm Beach, 11.41 inches of rain fell last month, ranking May as the 11th wettest on record, but the tally is still a whopping 6.9 inches more than what’s normal for the month.
“It was gloomy and nasty and muddy,” said Michael Catron, owner of Southern Native Nursery in Loxahatchee. “As far as an event goes, May’s rains were one of the worst.”
Catron said the persistent showers that lasted from Mother’s Day through Memorial Day were tough on a business that depends on landscapers and homeowners being able to work outside. Keeping plants from sitting in puddles of water for days was also a chore.
“I had two pumps going and we wasted a lot of time pulling plants out of flooded areas,” Catron said. “It just wasn’t a fun time.”
The National Centers for Environmental Information are part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Their monthly climate reports are gathered by averaging observations from individual weather gauges nationwide – both automated and from volunteer observers. Crouch said because it’s known how rain spreads on average from place to place, the centers are able to interpolate statewide measurements back 124 years.
While May was notably wet for Florida, Crouch said there’s no rainfall trend statewide in terms of looking for clues that point to climate change.
Colin Zarzycki, a scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., said that while a warmer atmosphere can hold more water vapor making for heavier rains, it’s wrong to pin a single month’s record on global warming.
“It’s not fair to say that having the wettest May on record is due to climate change, but having events like that is consistent with climate change,” Zarzycki said. “We would expect these records to get broken more frequently as the climate changes, that’s the direction we are going.”
Crouch said May’s warmth nationwide, which broke the record set during the dust bowl era of 1934, does represent a long term warming trend.
According to the NCEI, the average May temperature across the U.S. was 65.4 degrees last month, 5.2 degrees warmer than average. Nationwide, there were more than 8,590 daily warm temperature records broken or tied in May. That’s 18 times more than the 460 cold temperature record set during the month.
“May was definitely contributing to the trend,” Crouch said.
Florida’s average temperature in May was 76.1 degrees, compared to the warmest May in 2010 which averaged 78.5 degrees.
Last month’s showers and cloudiness contributed to Florida’s lower average temperature.
“The rainy pattern started and it persisted with very little interruption through the end of the month,” said Robert Molleda, warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Miami. “We tapped into this deep moisture and it really didn’t break.”
A pattern “eerily similar” to what Florida experienced in May is setting up in the Gulf of Mexico, said Alex Wallace, an on-camera meteorologist with The Weather Channel.
A deep dip in the southern branch of the jet stream is again poised to pump tropical moisture into the Sunshine State.
“It’s just the cycle this time of year,” Wallace said. “It’s the rainy season.”
Florida’s wet May
Stuart: 24.22 inches, 1st wettest
Fort Lauderdale beach: 19.10 inches, 1st wettest
Key West International Airport: 14.17 inches, 1st wettest
Fort Myers: 12.77 inches, 1st wettest
Gainesville: 8.38 inches, 1st wettest
Daytona Beach: 11.57 inches, 2nd wettest
Bradenton: 10.82 inches, 2nd wettest
Port St. Lucie: 11.25 inches, 3rd wettest
Vero Beach: 9.13 inches, 3rd wettest
Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport: 15.51 inches, 3rd wettest
Miami International Airport: 16.59 inches, 3rd wettest
Orlando: 8.07 inches 3rd wettest
Tampa: 7.73 inches, 5th wettest
Jacksonville Beach: 6.69 inches, 8th wettest
West Palm Beach (PBIA): 11.41 inches, 11th wettest
SOURCE: Southeast Regional Climate Center