As we sweat through an unseasonably warm winter, South Florida might feel like one of the most humid regions in the country.
Yet the frizz in your hair and the sweat on your brow are deceiving. Of 255 U.S. cities surveyed by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, about 55 are more humid than here, including places in Alaska, Indiana and Tennessee.
Make no mistake, South Florida’s feels-like temperatures, combining heat and humidity, are among the highest in the nation – mainly because the weather is usually hot year-round. That old saying, “It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity” should be the other way around in these parts.
“It’s going to feel hot here because the temperatures are hot,” said meteorologist Robert Molleda, of the National Weather Service in Miami.
Humidity is basically the amount of water vapor in the air and isn’t necessarily a measure of a region’s comfort level. Indeed, humidity can make conditions freezing cold or steamy hot, Molleda said.
For instance, Green Bay, Wis., is an icebox in the winter while South Florida is a sauna in the summer, yet both have about the same annual average humidity.
“When it’s snowing, the relative humidity is going to be relatively high,” Molleda said.
A more accurate measure of whether you’re going to break into a sweat, particularly in summer, is the heat index, which combines heat and humidity, he said. For instance, when the temperature is 90 degrees and the relative humidity is a modest 60 percent, it will feel like 100 degrees.
Another interesting tidbit: Humidity tends to be higher in the morning, usually because the air is cooler and more easily saturated with moisture, the same basic reason dew forms.
“It feels hotter in the afternoon than in the morning, and people might associate that with more humidity,” Molleda said. “But it simply feels warmer because the temperature is higher.”
Want more evidence that Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach aren’t all that horribly humid?
One website, TotalBeauty, listed Miami as seventh in its top 10 cities for having good hair days, noting “it also has very little wind and many salons.’’
Jim O'Connell, a trained weather spotter and a Fort Lauderdale Realtor, said the higher the humidity, the better.
“I kind of enjoy it because I breathe better,” said O’Connell, who has asthma.
Others say humidity can put a damper on outdoor activities.
“If I play golf, I come in ringing wet,” said Irv Eisen, a Boca Raton snowbird.
The average annual relative humidity here is 83 percent in the morning and 61 percent in the afternoon. Many other cities around the state and the nation have higher levels, including Tampa, New Orleans and Houston.
And then there’s Yakutat, a town on Alaska’s southeast coast, where it either snows or rains an average of 234 days a year and temperatures range from 88 degrees to minus 24. It’s annual relative humidity is 84 in the morning and 77 in the afternoon.
Even landlocked cities, such as Orlando, Indianapolis and Chattanooga, where you would think the air would be on the dry side, have higher humidity levels than South Florida. In many cases, that’s because those locations see “rainfall spread out over the year,” Molleda said.
The most humid city in the nation? A small, consistently cool burg named Quillayute in extreme northeast Washington state. It’s average annual relative humidity is 93 percent in the morning and 74 in the afternoon.
In recent weeks, South Florida has been both hotter and more humid that usual, the result of winds pushing both heat and moisture from the ocean over land. Residents have felt it.
“It’s killing us down here this year,” said Marshall Rosen, a Delray Beach retiree. “We’re keeping our air conditioning on more than ever.”
However, considering it’s still early March, hang on tight, Molleda warned.
“If you think it’s bad now – wait till June,” he said. “This is nothing.”
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Shown are the average relative morning and afternoon humidity levels, in percentages, of some U.S. cities:
Miami: 83 61
Eugene, Ore.: 91 60
Orlando: 90 55
Asheville, N.C.: 90 57
Houston: 89 65
St. Paul Island, Alaska: 88 83
New Orleans: 87 65
Chattanooga, Tenn.: 86 56
San Francisco: 84 62
Indianapolis: 84 62
Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration