severe Weather

Dan Dick paddling in a storm - photo by Mike Ruso

Many Americans move to Florida to escape cold climates in other parts of the country. Though they may flee the cold, they don’t necessarily embrace the heat and many Floridians stay indoors during the summer except to go to the beach. Floridians look forward to the onset of fall the way a northerner looks forward to spring. The paddling season is then backwards from the rest of the country. During the odd cool year, temperatures are pleasant October through April. More often, the heat lingers until November and returns by the end of March and these months are also the safest with respect to weather.

 

Despite the heat, many of us take vacations during the summer or otherwise cannot resist getting out on the water on a beautiful sunny day. For day trips and over-nighters this okay, provided you check the weather forecast before leaving. I want to discourage anyone who is considering a long-distance paddling trip, especially the Circumnavigational Paddling Trail, from setting out during the summer. Hurricane season starts at the beginning of June and ends in late November. During these months, the risks of tropical weather, hurricanes, and daily thunderstorms (see below) are too great to safely paddle long distances. Thru-paddles should only be undertaken between November and March.


Winter Cold Fronts

Even during winter months, Florida temperatures may be higher than many Americans experience during summer months. For example, while paddling in the Keys during the first week of February 2009, my thermometer hovered above 100 degrees for days.

 

Temperatures also fluctuate wildly over the course of a week as cold fronts bring blasts of frigid air. Typically, cold temperatures persist for one day then subsequent days grow progressively warmer. It is always warmest just before a front hits. In winter months this regular pattern occurs every six days or so.

 

When a front does hit, heavy rains like summer thunderstorms are at its leading edge. Once these storms pass, freezing temperatures combined with cloudless sunny skies follow. Sunshine is still intense during winter, regardless of the temperature, and one can be easily sunburnt on these cloudless days.

 

These conditions present paddlers with the problem of both staying warm and dry when the front hits, then staying cool just a few days later.


It's Not the Cold, It's the Humidity

Sweat must evaporate in order to carry heat away from the body but high humidity inhibits evaporation, as the already moist air will not accept more moisture. Florida’s thick humidity, which persists even in winter, makes staying cool challenging.

 

Humidity also presents a challenge to staying warm. During winter, sweat and moisture from the air cling to clothing and do not evaporate, causing a persistent chill. I find damp Florida winters to be much colder than the comparatively dry conditions I have experienced up north.


Sunburn

Living in the Northern Hemisphere, most Americans have experienced the sun dipping closer to the southern horizon each day after the summer solstice. During winter in many states, the sun seems barely to climb above the horizon, even at noon. However, Florida’s low latitude means the sunshine is always intense since the sun is always high and bright.

 

Because of this, you can be sunburned on a cloudy day. Though counterintuitive, it has happened to me many times.

 

The FDA has found that sunscreen effectiveness plateaus at SPF 50. You should wear SPF 50 sunscreen every day. This may seem excessive, but Dan and I did so yet still became deeply tanned during our trip.


Thunderstorms

Central Florida lies at latitude 28 degrees north. It shares this latitude with the Mexican desert, the Sahara Desert, and the Middle East, not places known for cool, damp weather. The only reason Florida is not itself a desert, is its peninsular shape. During the day, the sun heats the land faster than the surrounding water. The air over the peninsula rises, and the comparatively cooler air above the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico rolls in to fill the empty space left by the rising air (low pressure in meteorological terms). As the two cool, moist bodies of air collide, they create huge thunderstorms. Like clockwork, this cycle plays out as thunderheads boil every afternoon in warm months.


Most of the rain experienced on the US east coast, even the heaviest rain, is a drizzle compared to a Florida thunderstorm. The rain here is more intense than people from out of state realize and it starts quickly.


While thunderclouds form every afternoon, it doesn’t necessarily rain everywhere every day. The possibility of thunderstorms should not outright stop someone from paddling, but they can be violent, with high winds, pounding rain, tornadoes, and lightning.Always check the weather forecasts before going out on the water.


If a thunderstorm rolls in on you, do not keep paddling. Land and take cover immediately


Lightning

Tampa, Florida is the lightning capital of the United States, and second in the world to Rwanda. Central Florida is known as Lightning Alley. Every storm in Florida will have lightning.

 

To reduce the likelihood of a lightning strike, take these precautions:

  • Get off the water immediately
  • Once on land, avoiding high ground, solitary trees, open spaces, metallic objects. Search for low ground, ditches, trenches. If they contain water or if the ground is saturated, then find clumps of shrubbery or trees, all of uniform height.
  • Remove all metal objects, bracelets, watches, rings, and ditch your paddle.
  • Avoid all metal shelters and sun shelters.
  • If you are paddling in a large group, do not huddle together.

Inland Flooding

First of all, I think it is important to mention that there is no such thing as a natural disaster. All disasters are man made because people have chosen to build homes and structures out of sync with the rhythms of the natural world and/or are unprepared when the eventual happens.

 

General Flooding

Many parts of Florida are seasonal wetlands. That is, during months with low rainfall they are dry, but during months of high rainfall, such as the summer, they become places of standing water. Entire ecosystems have evolved to live in these periods of wetness. Maps will likely not distinguish between seasonal and year-round wetlands, and simply label both areas as wetlands.

 

Flash Flooding

People from out West, up North, or Appalachia are probably accustomed to flash floods after a heavy storm. In Florida, our relatively flat terrain means rivers do not experience flash flooding. Small creeks may swell, but the high water line is obvious and rarely will the creek swell over its banks. This is because huge summer thunderstorms are a regular occurrence and the land is adapted to them.


Coastal Flooding: Storm Surges

flooded campsite - photo by Mike Ruso
flooded campsite - photo by Mike Ruso

The greatest hazard to the coastal thru-paddler is storm surge, and no place is more susceptible to storm surge than the Big Bend.

 

The picture at the top of this page was taken as Dan and I paddled against the beginnings of a fierce storm in the Big Bend. We had intended to reach the Dallus Creek campsite but due to high winds stopped in the small town of Keaton Beach. There we were lucky and rented a house for very little money but we didn't know how lucky we were until the storm passed two days later and we reached the Dallus Creek campsite.

 

The campsite was swamped with about in inch of water and mud (see the picture on the right). We hunted for a piece of dry ground but found nothing. There was a moment when Dan and I looked at each other and neither one of us knew what to do. Discouraged, Dan walked down the beach to see if there was some other place we could go. Stubbornly I charged deeper into the brush and scraggly trees to find a spot. Then I got lucky, kind of. I found a spot that was comparatively dry, but when I pressed my foot down into the grass water would swell up. We settled for that.

With the immediate concern of where to camp settled we thought about how the place had been flooded. It was obvious to us that it had been more than just the hard rain. All of the grass under the trees was flattened and pointing in the same directioninland. This, and debris piled against tree trunks made us conclude that the place had been submerged under a storm surge. A sobering thought. There was a moment of thinking, "Wow, we're luckier than we thought..." followed by thoughts of complete terror. What if we had been just one day ahead? What if there was no town... we would have stayed in camp and not paddled...

 

The next day when we reached our next campsite we discovered it too had been flooded, and then the next day that campsite had been hit by storm surge, and then the next day that campsite.

 

From the safety of our rented house we had watched the storm surge hit. It came at midnight. Had we been camped out, a surge of water would have hit our tents while we slept, flooded camp, and possibly carried away the kayaks. This wasn't a hurricane or tropical storm, just a run-of-the-mill winter storm. I don't know what we would have done. I have no advice.

 

Read a full account of those events at our blog.