Florida Drought Worsens In 2023

From January 1st through April 5th, Orlando is experiencing one of its driest periods since the late 1800s, with less than 2 inches of rainfall. This has also been the warmest season ever recorded in the city. The U.S. Drought Monitor, a collaboration of universities and federal environmental agencies, has identified a severe drought expanding across Central Florida and much of the state’s peninsula.

Fran Boettcher, a master gardener at the Orange County and the University of Florida agricultural extension center, questioned, “How long has it been since it last rained? Nobody even remembers?”

Just 0.15 inches of rain fell in Orlando 25 days ago, hardly enough to moisten the soil. There have been 1.89 inches of rainfall this year, about the same as one moderate summer shower.

The recent data from the Drought Monitor, updated every Thursday morning, shows that severe drought conditions in Florida have worsened dramatically. The current percentage of the damaged area in the state is 55%, a significant increase from the 20% reported at the beginning of the year and a dramatic increase from the less than 1% recorded during the same time last year.

Florida’s commissioner of agriculture, Wilton Simpson, issued a cautionary statement on Thursday regarding the looming threat of an intense brush and forest fire season. The commissioner overseeing the Florida Forest Service, the primary agency in charge of wildfire responses, expressed concerns about the dry conditions prevalent in the region running from Ocala southward, which could potentially spark devastating fires.

Simpson emphasized the need for vigilance in handling backyard barbecues and raised awareness about arson and lightning strike risks. As a precaution, burn bans have been implemented in Brevard, Orange, Osceola, and Seminole counties.

Simpson warned that people should be careful around open fires when having backyard barbecues and lightning. Burn bans have been implemented in the many Florida counties due to the increased danger of wildfires. When asked about the active fire season, Simpson said, “We are advising everyone to be extra careful.”

Historically, April poses challenges for lawns and landscaping in Central Florida due to the onset of hotter weather with limited rainfall. On average, the transition from the dry season to the rainy season in Orlando occurs on May 27th, just five days before the commencement of the Atlantic hurricane season.

According to Derrick Weitlich, a prominent meteorologist and climate program leader at the National Weather Service in Central Florida, the rainfall levels across the region for 2023 have been meagre, ranging from 1 to 4 inches. This is significantly below the average by as much as 6 inches. 

Weitlich warned that crops and pastures are withering, the risk of wildfires is increasing, and groundwater levels are declining due to the dry conditions. However, the U.S. Climate Prediction Center’s long-term forecast indicates a potential recovery in rainfall by the end of June.

The unpredictability of weather patterns has been exacerbated by the impacts of global heating in the past six months. In late September, Hurricane Ian brought extensive flooding and unprecedented rainfall to Central Florida.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, the whole Florida peninsula had recovered from drought conditions by early October, but other Western states, particularly California, we’re dealing with extreme dryness. The weather has been very erratic, with shifting conditions creating difficulties and inconveniences in several sections of the United States.

After experiencing historic levels of rainfall and snowfall this year, California’s severe drought has significantly improved, with almost no areas facing severe drought conditions. In contrast, Florida’s peninsula has been hit hard by dry weather, leading to widespread drought conditions. The Drought Monitor reported on Thursday that Central Florida had been particularly affected, with reports of water holes drying up and extremely poor pasture conditions, necessitating supplemental feeding for livestock to be maintained.

As Central Florida residents witness their lawns turning brown due to the scorching heat and dry conditions, Boettcher, a master gardener, suggests switching to Florida native plants that are more resilient to drought and require less water compared to thirsty grass. Boettcher points out that lawns demand substantial amounts of water, fertilizer, and pest control, which can be time-consuming and expensive, putting a strain on time and finances.