The gloom of a gray winter day can sink into a soul like spilled ink on paper, seeping and spreading a darkness that, at its worst, can become a disorder.
In South Florida, it’s a rare week when the sun doesn’t shine, so a malady such as seasonal affective disorder isn’t often on the radar of mental health professionals.
But this winter’s strong El Niñ o threatens to pull more clouds and rain over the Sunshine State. This month, the sun went missing for about a week, and people noticed. If El Niño brings what’s forecast, counselors say they may need to more strongly consider seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, when diagnosing patients.
“If our sunny weather pattern is about to change, people may indeed feel gloomier and not even understand why because it’s just not something we see here a whole lot,” said Pamela Gionfriddo, chief executive officer of the Mental Health Association of Palm Beach County. “But I think it would be a temporary situation.”
Seasonal affective disorder, which is a combination of biological and mood disturbances, affects about 5 percent of people in the U.S., according to the American Family Physician.
It occurs mostly in fall and winter and more often in higher latitude areas where dawn comes later and days are shorter.
It’s more than just the “winter blues” but can be hard to diagnose because symptoms mingle with other issues. Feelings of depression, sadness, helplessness, withdrawing from social situations, low energy, and increased appetite, including a craving for carbohydrates, are symptoms of SAD, but also of a host of other mental health concerns.
More women are affected than men, by a ratio of about 4-to-1.
Marcia Starkman, a psychiatric clinical nurse in Hallandale Beach, was diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder while living in Toronto where the sun doesn’t rise until nearly 8 a.m. this time of year and sets before 5 p.m.
She described her feelings during the long Toronto winters as like a bear hibernating.
“I would just shut down. I didn’t care about anything. I became a couch potato,” Starkman said. “I started to notice after a couple of winters that it was a pattern. I put two and two together.”
The solution for Starkman was to sit in front of a light every morning for 30 minutes shortly after waking.
It helped. But after 22 years in Toronto, Starkman moved to Florida in 2007.
“I know I can say I feel better here,” Starkman said. “I’m not 100 percent, but I don’t dread the winter. I used to dread the winter.”
Read more about seasonal affective disorder in The Palm Beach Post here.
Palm Beach County is having to spray for mosquitoes in late December – an unprecedented event triggered by the wet and warm weather.
And not just December, spraying will likely occur on Christmas Day.
The little bloodsuckers are proliferating with the abnormally high rain totals and warm temperatures we’ve had this December. Complaints are flooding mosquito headquarters.
“We’ve had such a strange year with wind and weather,” said Gary Goode, environmental program manager with the Palm Beach County Mosquito Control Division. “We sprayed late last week, but we’re still seeing rain and water on the ground.”
South Florida Water Management District shows Palm Beach County receiving 6.2 inches of rain so far this month. That’s 4.15 inches above the normal for December.
Miami-Dade County is nearly 10 inches above normal, while Broward County is up 5.43 inches.
At the same time, temperatures are running nearly 10 degrees above normal. That promotes more activity among the mosquitoes. Overnight temperatures have hovered in the mid-70s when they are typically in the 50s this time of year.
“We need a hard frost to kill them all off,” Goode said about the mosquitoes. “But it it’s at least cooler, they’ll hunker down and stay in the bushes.”
Hampering efforts to get rid of the pests are windy conditions that mosquito patrol folks don’t normally deal with when they’re spraying in the summer months.
Last week, Goode had hoped to spray about 225,000 acres out west, but didn’t make it all the way through. On Tuesday, Goode tried to do more spraying, but then it started raining.
The mighty trade winds that ushered ships across the Atlantic when sails and Mother Nature set maritime agendas gave way in 2015 to the westerlies — gales that pile warm Pacific Ocean water against the Americas and signal El Nino.
But like a pendulum, that water will slosh back toward Asia. Trade winds will regain power. The subtropical jet stream that helped kill Atlantic hurricanes will shift south.
And La Nina will awaken.
Just as El Nino helped protect Florida from tropical cyclones this storm season, hurricane experts are already considering the fate of the U.S. coast in a La Nina year, which 2016 could easily become.
“After a really big El Nino, you seem to transition to La Nina, and it can happen rapidly,” said Bill Patzert, a climatologist at NASA’s jet propulsion laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “The 2015 hurricane season was somewhat benign in the Atlantic, but if La Nina kicks in this coming summer, it could go back to spectacular.”
El Nino works as a hurricane deterrent by using the subtropical jet stream to cut the tops off storms with strong vertical shear — winds moving at different speeds and directions in different levels of the Atmosphere. The eastern Pacific Ocean is warmer than normal as surface waters flow west.
La Nina is marked by strong winds from the east that push warm Atlantic waters toward the U.S., while weaker winds from the west are less able to disrupt storms. The eastern Pacific Ocean is cooler than normal as east winds push surface water toward Asia.
During neutral years – between La Nina and El Nino – ocean temperatures, tropical rainfall patterns and wind patterns are closer to long term averages.
Want to know what planet in the Star Wars universe your weather most resembles?
Well, one intrepid video and web producer has created a website where you can pop in the name of your town and find out what planet you’d most likely be living on if you were a Star Wars character (and what character would you be?)
When I typed in West Palm Beach last week, it told me I may as well be living in Dagobah – “Hot and wet, and not in a good way. Also, Yoda might be hiding somewhere.”
This morning, it’s apparently more like Yavin 4, the jungle-covered 4th moon in orbit around the gas giant Yavin.
I came across Scott’s site while reading a great blog by Marshall Shepherd in Forbes. Shepherd is director of the atmospheric sciences program at the University of Georgia.
He is a self-proclaimed weather and Star Wars geek and wanted to put the two together for his students.
“While many of the planets/moons in the series likely were monoclimes (e.g. snowball climate or other other extreme climate state), I would like to present them in a way to teach about Earth’s climate system,” Shepherd wrote.
It can get a little technical, but he goes into explain that Tatooine would likely be an area of large-scale sinking motion, similar to most major deserts of Earth, which are located in the sinking branch of the Hadley Circulation.
The planet Hoth is also explained, as well as Dagobah and Mustafar.
“Weather matters,” Zehr writes. “Poe used it often to reflect the fall of the Usher household in the titular short story, and Twain used it to mirror Huckleberry Finn’s loneliness and melancholy in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Star Wars often offers this insight as well.”
Colorado State University’s Department of Atmospheric Science stopped doing quantitative December hurricane forecasts for pending storm seasons in 2012.
But researchers are still issuing a more qualitative discussion of the factors that will influence the 2016 hurricane season, including the climatological chances that the U.S. and individual states will get hit by a tropical storm, hurricane or major hurricane.
This year’s discussion, released last week, relies on two main events for its hurricane predictions; whether El Nino will remain a strong influence through summer next year and the potency of the Atlantic Multi-Decadal Oscillation (AMO).
El Nino is known to knock down hurricanes by creating strong westerly wind shear, such as we saw during the 2015 hurricane season.
The AMO is a longer-term phenomenon that impacts sea-surface temperatures. Warm sea surface temperatures are like candy to growing hurricanes.
While CSU’s study, which was written by hurricane expert Philip Kotzbach with assistance from William Gray, looks generally at four scenarios affecting hurricane frequency and strength, it also gives climatological landfall probabilities for 2016. The probabilities are long term chances, taking into account data from the 20th century.
“While we are not issuing a quantitative forecast in this early outlook, we can still provide interested readers with the climatological probabilities of landfall for various portions of the United States coastline,” Klotzbach wrote.
For all of the U.S., Klotzbach said there is a 97 percent chance of a named storm making landfall. That could mean a tropical storm, hurricane or major hurricane.
Last week’s discussion also gives the climatological probabilities that a hurricane or major hurricane will impact specific states.
Klotzbach notes that none of the 27 major hurricanes that have formed since Wilma in 2005 made a U.S. landfall.
“The 10-year period that the U.S. has gone without any major landfalls exceeds the previous record of eight years set between 1861 and 1868,” he wrote.
“There is obviously a luck component that has played a significant role,” Klotzbach said.
He explains another part of why in a blog for the Capital Weather Gang written with Brian McNoldy. Basically an exploration of how an east coast low pressure system may be steering hurricanes away from the U.S.
Florida is singled out as being “remarkably lucky” to have not been impacted by a hurricane since Wilma. Klotzbach said there has been a marked decrease in hurricanes hitting the Florida peninsula over the past 50 years.
Bob Henson, a meteorologist and blogger for Weather Underground said CSU’s recent discussion makes him even more “eager to see how this very uncertain hurricane season will unfold.”
“As one would expect, the skill of these outlooks steadily improves as the hurricane season nears,” he wrote in a blog last week. “Even if it’s too soon right now to expect an accurate forecast for 2016, the latest thoughts from CSU make me even more eager to see how this very uncertain hurricane season will unfold.”
South Florida will see the sun again this week after cloudy to partly cloudy skies have blanketed the area since at least Dec. 1.
By Friday, rain chances are expected to be down to 10 percent, and skies are forecast to be mostly sunny, according to the National Weather Service.
Saturday’s forecast is “sunny.”
“It will be a nice change,” said David Ross, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Miami. “I’m sure it will be welcome.”
According to a weather station at the Palm Beach International Airport, every day this month has been either partly cloudy or cloudy. In technical terms, “partly cloudy” is a day when more than half of the sky is cloudless.
“Cloudy” is when 7/8 or more of the sky is covered by clouds.
The stubborn front stalled in the Florida Straits has been responsible for most of the clouds and rain.
Since Dec. 1, 5 inches of rain has fallen at Palm Beach International Airport. That’s 3 to 4 inches above normal for the first week of December.
A high pressure system is expected to push through later this week that will get rid of that soggy front to our south.
“By Saturday and Sunday, we’ll have the best couple of days we’ve had in several weekends,” said Arlena Moses, a NWS meteorologist in Miami. “If you look to Central and North Florida, they don’t have a cloud in the sky.”
And although Florida enjoyed a more than 10-year hurricane drought after 2005’s Hurricane Wilma, Hurricane Hermine made landfall in the Big Bend area in September 2016. And the east coast experienced a scary swipe from Hurricane Matthew in October 2016.
Still, HomeInsurance.com has ranked Florida’s cities based on their evaluation of NOAA-identified storms from 1965 to October 2014, doling out scores based on the number of storm events, number of storm-related deaths, property damage and storm-related injuries.