“Florida’s nice, for sure. The only problem: there’s no mountains.”
That’s what out-of-staters have been telling me for years.
I’ve got a ready reply:
“Just look up.”
Florida’s clouds are our mountains.
Like the Rockies, they dwarf us. Like the Pyrenees, they frame our lives. Like the Alps, they block out the sky. Like none other, they cross boundaries of land and water, time and space. Florida’s mountains light up the sky, paint rainbows, forecast, menace, entice, captivate and inspire awe. They inspire painters and shutterbugs, transfix sunbathers bewitch and warn the aquatic adventurers who play beneath them. They line the horizon, forecast weather in a state where rain and sunshine can occupy the same skies, and furnish endless entertainment—a climactic Disneyworld towering above us.
“Just look up.”
The ethereal majesty of Florida’s cloudscapes has captivated my imagination, bowled over our snowbird visitors, and filled my cameras since 1994, when my family settled on Pass-a-Grille, a tiny, palm-studded Gulf Coast community at the southern tip of St. Pete Beach.
Bordered on the east by Tampa Bay, the state’s largest open-water estuary stretching 400 miles, and the vast reaches of the Gulf of Mexico yearning westward from miles of sugary ribbons of sand—Pass-a-Grille Way is a cloud watchers paradise.
For thousands of years, beginning with Native Americans who found sustenance in its prairies and waters to today’s inhabitants and tourists, the state’s coastal beaches offer an ever-changing display of Nature’s majesty and miracles.
“They’re just big monsters in the sky,” says Logan Owens, a 25-year-old kite surfer from St. Pete Beach. Skimming and skipping Gulf waves perched on his 14-meter Slingshot “is the only way you can release your mind in snow capped peaks, to be is just truly in the mountains. It’s a magical experience.”
At dawn, peach and rose tinged powder puffs—cumulous in cloud speak— line the horizon at dawn; to my eye a string of miniature brains. Summer days witness a transformation forged by billions of rain drops, hail and ice crystals. Florida’s intense sun paints them milky white; rain adds charcoal brushstrokes portending showers. By mid-day, swollen cumulus clouds overtake blue skies.
In a cumulus cloud, the rain drops, hail and ice crystals can be quite heavy, but are held aloft by the updraft. The freezing level is around 15,000 feet in the summer, with drops below and graupel/hail/crystals above.
Magic time. Thunderheads, breeders of torrential rains, cannon fire thunder and fearsome and deadly slashes of lightning take root. These are Florida’s most dramatic, and dangerous clouds—cumulonimbus from the Latin for heap and rain. Their base can spread for miles. From origins as low as 500 feet, they can climb ten miles high. Mushroom caps give way to flat tops—meteorologists call them anvil clouds that slam down lightning miles of the storm’s core, like a heavenly blacksmith’s spray of sparks.
Cumulus is Latin for heap, but I think puffy works as well.
Only 5-10% of lightning comes from the anvil cloud, and they tend to be three times more powerful and can strike miles from the core of the storm. Many of the “bolt from the blue” come from this type of lightning.
An August sunset. On the Gulf, I marvel at jagged purple-gray shapes; the remains of a stormy day silhouette the pale rose horizon. Each bears its own stamp in the beholder’s eye: a ragged cliff, familiar palms, their fronds frozen in mid-toss, a medieval castle, a gigantic top slowly spinning westward. Stare long enough and elephants appear, complete with trunks and tusks. Is that a lion? A riddle?
To Antoinette Falk, Florida’s clouds always remind her of a Rorschach test, constant morphing of water, sunlight and air encouraging our minds to imagine stories lurking in the shapes. Her reaction is understandable—Falk is a St. Petersburg psychiatrist—and she sees therapeutic value in cloud watching. “People are always looking for a change of scene. All they have to do is look up.”
But her perspective is also colored by her days on Tampa Bay, racing Snipes and Thistles with her husband Chris Klotz. On the water, Florida’s mountains don’t just predict weather; they evoke a spiritual bond,” she says. “It’s like being close to God.”
But no cloud watcher I know brings as much passion and perspective to Florida’s mountains than the sailor Allison Jolly of St. Petersburg who, at 22, took the Olympic Gold in the summer 1988 Games. She’s never forgotten the weekend afternoons she spent as a girl on St. Petersburg beaches watching the skies as her dad “would point out the clouds that were likely going to bring us rain and lightning…. They never cease to amaze me.”
“Mountains just sit there,” she sniffs. “Our clouds change every five minutes.” A would-be meteorologist who trained in chemistry, Jolly turns poetic when she looks up. “Clouds are a continually changing artist’s canvas of colors, shapes, sizes.”
It’s as the sailor—Jolly’s been on the water since the age of ten, now coaches women’s sailing at the University of South Florida at Tampa Bay and tries to never miss a summer’s sail—that the Olympian grasps the vital connection between clouds and wind that signals when it’s time to shift direction, lower the sails, drop anchor or turn tail and run for shore.
Savvy cloud watchers recognize that heading for
safety is the safest option. Florida’s mountain’s majesties have a dangerous as
spawner of deadly lightning strikes. In West Central Florida, thunderstorms can
blitz the landscape with 15,000 lightning strikes an hour during the 100-110
summer days when cumulonimbus clouds rise in
the atmosphere—nearly 40 million bolts. Floridian’s have learned to respect this
byproduct of natural beauty by scurrying for cover at the first crackle and
flash. Their caution has limited lightning deaths to one
a year since 2010.
Number of bolts is too high. Data from the National Lightning Detection Network shows that over the continental U.S. an average of 20,000,000 cloud-to-ground flashes occur every year. http://www.nssl.noaa.gov/primer/lightning/ltg_climatology.html
Extra facts: Normal in Florida is 9 fatalities and 40 injuries. In 2011, Florida had 1 fatality and 30 injuries. In 2010, 1 fatality and 21 injuries.
Earth-bound mountains need eons of tectonic shifts to pierce the earth’s quest. The life cycle of clouds is measured in minutes and hours.
An abundance of moisture, unstable air, and the collision of cool sea breezes and land-heated air–what meteorologists call a lifting mechanism—dab the cloud maker’s palette. Moving inward from the coast, cooler air acts like a shovel, feeding benign and beautiful cumulous clouds like a stoker shoving coal into a steam-fired locomotive, creating updrafts that propel the clouds upward.
“It’s like dropping a match on gasoline,”
explains Dan Noah, a
forecast meteorologist at the National Weather Service in
Ruskin. The thunderheads climb skyward, blackened with heavy rain, blasting
thunder and lightning and burning off their fuel. Spent, they drift to the earth and, Noah
says, “just rain themselves out.”
That’s why the cooling pearly sands lure me, camera in hand, as sunset beckons and the day’s behemoths drift harmlessly out to sea, their ever-changing scarlet, charcoal and pastels painting an array of mystical shapes that fire the imagination and calm the soul. The show doesn’t end as the sun sinks into the horizon. Lingering peaks play hide and seek with the moon.
No mountains, huh?
Just look up.
(Published in Florida Visits, reprinted in Huffington Post, 2012)
Photograph by Tom Barrett courtesy of unsplash.com