FSU researchers: Florida’s climate is changing, and we should all take notice

In their book “Florida’s Climate: Changes, Variations
& Impacts,” Chassignet and Misra offer a thorough
review of the current state of research on
Florida’s changing climate.

Climate change is often understood as a global problem with broad effects that are difficult to detect on more narrow local scales.

However, Florida State University Professor Eric Chassignet and Associate Professor Vasu Misra, both from the Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Science, believe that more attention should be paid to state-level effects of climate change, especially in Florida — a state famous for its mild climate, idyllic coastlines and seaside properties.

In their new book “Florida’s Climate: Changes, Variations, & Impacts,” published by the Florida Climate Institute, Chassignet and Misra set out on an exhaustive investigation of Florida’s changing climate, the manifold consequences of these changes and how the state might adapt.

Misra and Chassignet spoke to news.fsu.edu about their book, Florida’s climate and the need to actively address mounting climate change issues.

People tend to assume a global perspective when thinking about climate change. Why was it important to you to focus your attention on the regionally specific changes and variations emerging in Florida’s climate?

Chassignet: As we observe climate around the world changing, it’s important to recognize that climate change and climate variability are not uniform. We need to understand how geographic location and surrounding topography influence how global change is represented locally. This is particularly important in our state, given that climate has been and continues to be one of Florida’s most important assets. Through this book, we wanted to address the unique conditions in our state and examine how rapidly climate changes might occur, how Florida might adapt to anticipated changes and how Floridians might support efforts to reduce the rates of change.

Misra: If you look at a map of demography change, Florida lights up in the Western Hemisphere with a growing population largely due to its desirable climate. The exposure of this growing population to the state’s fair share of extreme weather events and climate anomalies immediately raises its vulnerability. The book is written with an intent to make people “climate aware.” It is an easily accessible book with lots of useful information that can be used in classrooms, casual and serious discussions to shape future policies of the state. The book should pique the interest of people across a wide spectrum of professions.

Eric Chassignet, professor in the
Department of Earth, Ocean
 and Atmospheric Science.

To what extent is Florida’s climate shaped by its distinct geography? 

Chassignet: Florida, being surrounded by water, has a unique climate influenced by sea breeze and a strong seasonality in rainfall. This makes it more sensitive to variability generated by large-scale oscillations such as El Niño. Also, Florida’s tropical location makes it more susceptible to hurricanes and other extreme weather events.

Misra: It is not a coincidence that Florida has one of the highest incidences of landfalling tropical cyclones in the nation. It is also not a coincidence that Florida has a mild climate that is so desired by an ever growing migratory population. To a very great extent, Florida’s geography gives it a unique climate. The peninsular structure jutting into the tropical latitudes shapes robust surface ocean currents around it, gives it distinct rainy seasons and a relatively mild climate throughout the year punctuated with weather extremes like frost events in the winter, sporadic wild fires during the dry spring season and afternoon thunderstorms and hurricanes in the summer and fall seasons.

What broad changes in Florida’s climate have researchers detected? What are some effects of those changes?

Misra: Sea level rise is a clear and present threat to Florida coastlines. People in South Florida are already seeing it in the form of “sunny day flooding” — brackish water in their ground water resources. With rising coastal development and population density, the impact of storm surges is far more of an existential threat than anything else. The world insurance market is watching how Florida combats this threat and shapes its policies to protect its citizens.

Vasu Misra, associate professor in the
Department of Earth, Ocean
and Atmospheric Science.

Public health threats from severe heat waves are also of concern. The growing elderly population in the state makes it even more imperative to think of ways to mobilize them for evacuation from areas affected by severe weather events.

How have public and private institutions in Florida responded to a changing climate?

Chassignet: Public and private institutions have not yet truly responded to the issue of climate change. There is a growing awareness and even the formation of collaborations such as the Florida Climate Institute, which published this book. And we see local organizations such as those in South Florida attempting to address the issues faced by their communities, such as sea level rise. But at a statewide level, there has been limited response and the severity is downplayed. While there is no silver bullet to eliminate the risks imposed on Florida by climate change, elevating the discussion to a statewide level is part of the reason we published the book.

What does a state like Florida, where climate is a considerable draw for tourists and where many growing metropolitan areas are situated on or near the ocean, have to lose economically from a changing climate?

Chassignet: This book dedicates several chapters to economic issues related to climate change because our state’s climate is a major source of revenue, and climate change presents significant uncertainties that need to be taken into account when considering Florida’s future. Making informed decisions in light of potential future climate evolution would go a long way toward mitigating at least some of the state’s vulnerabilities and risk. But in order to do that, we must reduce those uncertainties through climate research and thus increase our adaptive capacity to climate change.

Misra: Florida has a lot to lose if visionary policies are not made quickly enough to address a changing climate. Sea level rise inundation is likely to cause losses in the existing coastal development and dislocation of population. Storm surge events that could be more severe than before could also threaten people and property. Rising population with fresh water-averse climate events like droughts, rising temperatures, heat waves and public health risks from vector-borne diseases are also potential causes of concern arising from a changing climate.

At the same time, there are opportunities the state could exploit such as making Florida a hub for renewable energy, building effective policies and offering incentives that mitigate the impact of severe weather and climate through intelligent coastal development. Florida already is an international destination for tourism and such good practices would make the state even more attractive.