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Exploring the Climate and Geography of the Sunshine State

From its subtropical north to tropical south, Florida exhibits diverse climates, ecosystems, and landforms. Sandy beaches, cypress swamps, pine forests, extensive coastlines and a coral reef compose the Sunshine State’s varied physical geography. Here is an in-depth look at what shapes this peninsula jutting between the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico.

Sunrise at Jacksonville Beach

Regional Climate Differences in Florida

North Florida, including cities like Jacksonville, Tallahassee, and Pensacola, falls into a humid subtropical climate. Summers are hot and humid with average highs in the 90s. Winters are milder, with highs in the 60s. Below freezing temperatures occur but aren’t common. Around 60 inches of rain falls annually.

The north-central region around Orlando and Tampa features a tropical savanna climate. Summers are similarly hot and humid with highs near 90°F. However, winter highs only reach the 70s typically. Precipitation averages 50 inches per year, with a distinct summer wet season and winter dry season.

South Florida and the Florida Keys exhibit a true tropical monsoon climate. Winters average 75°F for highs while summertime brings steamy 90°F heat with high humidity. Miami and the Keys have distinct wet and dry seasons. Around 57 inches of rain falls annually.

Storms, Hurricanes, and Rare Freezes

June through September brings heavy thunderstorms due to heat and humidity. Brief but intense downpours are common in summer. Drier winter weather features more sunshine.

Hurricanes and tropical storms threaten Florida’s coasts from June to November. The peak of the storm season is August through October. Damaging winds and heavy rain can be devastating to homeowners. In low-lying coastal areas, the storm surge can cause major flooding.

In 1992, Hurricane Andrew caused $25 billion in damages when it landed in Homestead. More recently, Hurricane Wilma caused over $16 billion in damages, mostly in Broward and Palm Beach counties. That was in 2005.

Occasional winter cold fronts can drop temperatures into the 30s across North Florida and as far south as Orlando. Snow is rare outside the Panhandle.

Hurricane Wilma

Coastal Features and Marine Environments

The Gulf Coast features miles of sandy white beaches, from Pensacola to Naples. Laid-back beach towns dot the shoreline. Calcium carbonate sediments compose the bright white sands along the Panhandle.

On the Atlantic Coast, sweeping sandy beaches run from Amelia Island and Daytona down to Miami Beach and the Keys. Extensive dune systems help protect coastal developments.

Florida’s coasts contain mangrove forests, salt marshes, estuaries, and seagrass beds that provide vital nursery habitat for fish and shellfish. These areas are susceptible to pollution runoff.

The Florida Reef Tract extends 170 miles from St. Lucie Inlet south to the Dry Tortugas off Key West. North America’s only living coral barrier reef, it supports over 6,000 marine species.

Inland Terrain Features

Covering the interior, pine and cypress savannas sit at elevations at or just above sea level, interrupted by swamps and marshy prairies. Slow moving rivers and floodplains cross these lowlands.

The Central Florida Ridge runs south from Orlando composed of rolling hills 100 to 250 feet above sea level. Lakes, citrus groves, and cattle ranches define this higher elevation region in the center of the peninsula. 

Northern Florida consists of gentle hills drained by the Suwannee, Apalachicola and other rivers. Some deeply cut river gorges exist, like those seen in Torreya State Park.

Hundreds of freshwater springs dot the Florida landscape, found where cracks and sinkholes penetrate the limestone bedrock. Volusia Blue Spring, Wakulla Springs, and other springs flow with crystal clear water. The water temperature is about 72 degrees in Florida’s springs, no matter what time of year it is.

Diverse Ecosystems Across the State

The Everglades once covered much of south Florida. Protected remnants like Big Cypress Swamp still support sawgrass prairies, cypress domes, sloughs, mangroves, and abundant wildlife.

Scrub habitat prevails across interior central Florida, composed of sandy soil and hardy vegetation like palmetto, oak and pine.

Hardwood hammocks occur as densely forested upland areas surrounded by drier habitats. Cabbage palm, live oak, cedar and mahogany thrive in hammock environments.

Swamps, lakes, rivers, and springs all contribute to Florida’s biodiversity. Manatees, alligators, storks, ibises, falcons, black bears, panthers, and over 500 fish species inhabit Florida waters.

Threats to the Environment

Development and agriculture over the past century have led to extensive habitat loss and pollution in Florida. Filling of wetlands for construction has greatly impacted natural systems.

Runoff from citrus farms, cattle operations, and sugarcane fields has degraded water quality, spurring algal blooms in lakes and along coastlines. Septic tanks also contaminate groundwater supplies.

Invasive species like Brazilian pepper, melaleuca, Burmese pythons, and hydrilla disrupt native flora and fauna across struggling ecosystems in Florida. Control efforts have had limited success.

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