The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Forty years ago Miami saw its only snow. These days, it’s simmering in record heat.

The front page of the Miami Herald on Jan. 20, 1977. (Miami Herald)

The only snow that ever fell in Miami did so 40 years ago today. The “winter storm” only lasted a few minutes for most areas, but it was still enough to coat the palms in white. Local newspaper headlines treated the flurries as they would a major hurricane. Even President Jimmy Carter got the snub the next day: Jan. 20, his inauguration.

“It was long enough, too, to give thousands of South Floridians their first taste of snow,” the Miami Herald wrote in 1977. “And it was long enough to force the National Weather Service to rewrite its record books — with an asterisk.”

Ah, the asterisk. See, it didn’t actually snow at Miami International airport, where official weather measurements are taken. But given the widespread reports of snow across the county, the Weather Service made an exception.

“As a result of this and the widespread eyewitness reports of snowfall,” they conceded, “an asterisk is included in the official precipitation records for Miami to indicate the widespread reports of snow on the morning of January 19th.”

As that fateful cold front pushed through, low temperatures dived into the 20s the following morning. The freeze caused more than $100 million in agriculture damage. Thirty five counties in Florida declared disasters.

That kind of event — extreme cold, even the mere potential for snow — is becoming less and less likely to occur as the years go by because of climate change. This is not to say that a strong cold front won’t ever make it that far south again or that snow will never be seen again in the area, just that a rare occurrence is becoming even more exceptional.

Low temperatures have been rising consistently since the 1950s. There’s a lot of variability in the raw data, but the average trend line makes it clear — things are getting warmer.

The warmest winter to date is the one we’re in right now, followed by 2015-2016. Never has the area experienced such consecutive warm winters.

Digging into the current season, since Dec. 1, Miami has set 28 warmth records, four of which represented the all-time warmest for the month of December. The three types of records being tracked here are the high temperature, the maximum low temperature and the daily average temperature.

Of course, the warmth isn’t limited to Miami. It’s also been the warmest winter so far in Key West, Fort Lauderdale Beach, Fort Myers, Orlando and even up to Gainesville. The outlook for the coming month is for continued above-average warmth, so this winter could certainly wrap up as the warmest on record.