The area off the coast of southwest Florida shows sea surface temperatures had reached 91 degrees Fahrenheit on Monday. Image courtesy of NOAA
The emerging marine heat wave off the coast of Florida could prove to be detrimental not just to the local ecosystem but also to residents of the peninsula's coast hoping to avoid explosive storms this hurricane season.
Water temperature in the area typically begins to heat up in late March and April, but this year the warming has increased intensely. Bright orange splotches blossomed off Florida's southwest coast on ocean temperature maps as buoys in the area recorded surface temperatures upwards of 90 degrees.
One buoy near Bob Allen Keys, Fla., located within the Everglades National Park just south of the mainland, recorded a water temperature as high as 96.3 degrees Monday at 4 p.m. EDT, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
While July sea surface temperatures in the low 90s aren't completely atypical near the Florida Keys, they tend to trend more toward the upper 80s closer to the peninsula, according to AccuWeather meteorologist Mary Gilbert.
"Right now, sea surface data in the Florida Keys indicates temperatures are in the middle 90s," she said. "Closer to Miami, some sea surface temperatures are at or just above 90."
These anomalies have triggered a marine heat wave, which is a period of unusually warm ocean temperatures that can have a significant impact on marine life, as well as coastal communities and economies, according to NOAA.
However, the warmer waters may also serve as fuel for tropical systems that wander into the Gulf.
"This is just inviting a big system to hit the state again this year. We already know how warm the water is across the main [tropical] development area now," AccuWeather lead long-range meteorologist Paul Pastelok said.
There were no active tropical systems in the Atlantic basin as of Tuesday morning, but marine heat waves can sometimes last for months or years. Pastelok warned that it takes a big event or change in the weather pattern to lower the water temperatures once more, and he expects the warm waters to last throughout the season.
In March, AccuWeather forecasters projected that the 2023 Atlantic season could produce 11-15 named storms -- around the 30-year average of 14 -- two to four of which could lead to direct impacts on the United States, including Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The warm waters around Florida could create an environment that allows a tropical system to rapidly intensify more easily.
"Dust and higher-than-normal shear is holding back tropical development currently and probably for most of July," Pastelok said. "But what happens when this eases back and a tropical wave or disturbance reaches this area? [We] need to watch for rapid intensification of storms this year. There may not be a lot of storms, but the ones that get into this area could explode."
A tropical system rapidly intensifies when its maximum sustained winds increase by 35 mph within a 24-hour period. Hurricane Ian, a storm that practically became the face of the 2022 Atlantic hurricane season, underwent rapid intensification in late September as it charged toward Florida.
According to a post-storm analysis by the National Hurricane Center, meteorologists found that peak winds in the eyewall had reached 160 mph, meeting the criteria of a Category 5 hurricane, before it lost some wind intensity and slammed into Florida as a strong Category 4 hurricane.
Data from NOAA shows that marine heat waves are unfolding on a global scale, setting records that are decades old. The most pronounced one is located off the coast of South America near Peru however, other events have also been noted in the eastern Atlantic, the north-central and southwestern Pacific, as well as the Indian Ocean. The marine heat wave in the Gulf of Mexico now joins their ranks.