A combination of warmer Gulf water and warmer air temperatures could mean a hotter-than-normal summer for Northwest Floridians.

Northwest Florida is hot, and it’s only getting hotter.  

According to the National Weather Service, the region's winter (January-February) was the hottest it’s been in 67 years and was the fourth warmest on record.

And those trends are continuing into spring. The month of March saw 27 days above the average temperatures, and so far every day in April except for one has been hotter than average.  

The Gulf of Mexico is freakishly warm as well. Eric Berger of Ars Technica reported the average surface temperature in the Gulf didn’t dip below 73 degrees this winter for the first time in recorded history. According to the National Weather Service in Mobile, Alabama, the Gulf is, on average, four to six degrees above normal. 

Experts are divided over whether the heat is part of a larger pattern of climate change or a typical cycle of weather that varies from year to year. Nevertheless, this summer could be a record one.   

Higher dew points, more humidity

A combination of warmer Gulf water and warmer air temperatures could mean a hotter-than-normal summer for Northwest Floridians. 

Bryan Mroczka, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Tampa, said that if the warmer trends continue into the summer as he expects, residents and visitors should prepare for rising dew points and higher humidity.

“Warmer ocean temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico are going to, especially during the summer, allow for higher amounts of moisture in the atmosphere, meaning higher dew points,” Mroczka said. “So it’s going to feel more sticky, more humid, and the heat indexes during the summer generally would be higher.”

Joe Maniscalco, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Mobile, Alabama, said the warm temperatures have blurred the lines between the seasons.

“The winter was unusually warm. We set numerous records, either broken or tied them, since the first of January,” he said. “It’s almost like we didn’t even see winter; we just moved right into spring and now it’s looking like it’s going to jump right into summer.”

Fewer hurricanes, more thunderstorms

The 2017 Atlantic hurricane forecast released this week by Colorado State University calls for 11 named storms, slightly below the historical average.   

“There are indications that we’re moving into maybe a weak El Nino pattern, which would tend to limit activity somewhat over the Atlantic basin,” Maniscalco said.

Dr. Mark Horrell, climatologist and professor of earth science at Northwest Florida State College, said even if there are fewer hurricanes, the storms that are produced have the potential to be stronger than normal.  

“There could be an increase in the energy that they’re producing,” Horrell said. “They seem to be getting more powerful, but it’s not a big increase.”

Mroczka said the warmer temperatures could prolong the summer thunderstorm season.

“Another issue, especially here in Florida and into the Panhandle, is we deal with ‘sea breeze thunderstorms,’ those daily thunderstorms,” he said. “Right around 80 degrees is when those thunderstorms really start firing off every day. With the warmer temperatures, we might start seeing those storms at an earlier time in the year, and we could have a longer thunderstorm season.”

‘The sky is not falling — yet’

Robert Weisberg, a professor at University of South Florida College of Marine Science, studies algae and red tide patterns. He said that while warm water temperature typically lead to more algae production, he wasn’t immediately concerned about any increased potential for red tide blooms in the Gulf this summer.

“I don’t think (warm waters) have much to do with whether or not we’ll have more or less red tide,” he said. “There are other factors that enter into it. ... Temperature is certainly a factor, because you get more growth when the temperatures are warmer, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll see more blooms.”

Weisberg cautioned that just because the winter and spring have been warmer than usual doesn’t necessarily mean those trends will continue into the rest of the year.

“The Gulf isn’t the only place that’s been warmer. The Southwest has been warmer too,” Weisberg said. “It doesn’t necessarily follow that just because the winter and spring are a little bit warmer, that the summer is going to be warmer, too. The sky is not falling — yet.”