If you've just moved to Miami from New York or Montana or somewhere else that has a real winter, you are probably extremely amused by how Floridians handle a cold snap – like, when the temperature goes below 60.
You may think 55 and sunny is glorious weather and it's time to put your winter gear in storage, but Miami residents and any long-time Floridians (as in, anyone who has lived here longer than six months) are wearing overcoats, boots, and earmuffs to walk their dogs. This is not because "our blood gets thinner" – that explanation has no scientific basis – but our expectation about what feels cold certainly changes – drastically.
Miami isn't built for cold
It doesn't help that Florida homes and buildings are constructed to stay cool. Those concrete block walls and tile floors are great in the summer, but make everything feel colder during those Miami winter months. It's not as if we can turn on the furnace because there are no furnaces. If you have central air conditioning, you have central heat, but it doesn't work very well. Some window air conditioning units may have a "reverse cycle," which provides heat. Some homes in Miami don't have heat at all, and many years they don't miss it.
Space heaters are a good option, but you shouldn't run them when you're asleep. The Consumer Product Safety Commission advises against using power strips and extension cords with space heaters. The fireplaces in older homes are good for heat, as long as they are clean and the flue is open (yes, we learned this from personal experience) – and you are awake to watch them. Don't use charcoal heaters or charcoal grills indoors, because they can cause carbon monoxide poisoning.
Recent arrivals who moved to Miami with a stylish winter wardrobe acquired in colder climates enjoy the chance to show off their Ugg boots and fur-trimmed coats. The rest of us are cobbling together a motley winter wardrobe from thrift-store finds and sweaters we bought 20 years ago. The longer you've been here, the worse your Miami winter wardrobe looks, unless you keep it updated for frequent trips to New York.
Average winter temperatures in Miami
The average high temperature in January in Miami is 76, and the average low is 62. In December, it's 82 and 72. In February, those numbers are 78 and 62. That's what we expect. That is what Miami winter weather is supposed to be – like spring and fall everywhere else.
We do not expect temperatures below 50 and, in fact, it does not freeze in Miami, though a few snow flurries were reported on January 19, 1977. The amount of snow was so small it did not become part of the official weather record, but people are still talking about that snowy January in Miami more than 40 years later.
How cold does it get in Miami? The lowest temperature ever recorded in Miami was 27 degrees in February 1917, but no one remembers that, and there was hardly anyone here then. Typical February weather in Miami won't be that chilly, but anything below 60 is considered cold by our standards and below 50, you should get out your overcoat, if you still have one.
Miami has benefitted enormously from its tropical winter weather, drawing tourists and winter residents since its founding. In fact, Miami owes its founding partly to the weather. Henry Flagler had intended to end his Florida East Coast Railway at West Palm Beach, 60 miles north of Miami. But after the great freeze of 1894–95 decimated the Central Florida orange groves, Flagler was persuaded to extend his railroad to Miami by businesswoman Julia Tuttle, who sent him a bouquet of flowers to demonstrate that the freeze had not gone as far south as Miami. Or at least that's the story we tell.
Winter: the best time to visit Miami?
If we must have winter in Miami, as happens every decade or so, we can at least have fun with it. Winter brings out Miami's gallows sense of humor, and we can make fun of ourselves while we complain bitterly about the not-so-bitter cold.
The Miami Herald provided some advice during a recent cold snap, about such foreign concepts as layering clothing and using a car heater:
"‘Layer up' means put, say, an undershirt under your shirt. Or under a sweater. And a jacket on over that. Long pants. Maybe even – we know this burdens some of you like relatives and we don't like to say it – socks. We know, we know. These are hard times for us all.
"In your car, after you start it, wait a few minutes. Then find the controls you use in July and August to cool the inside of the car down. Move them in the opposite direction. Warm air will eventually blow out of the vents."
Basically, we use this as our criteria – if you have to wear socks because it is too cold for sandals, it's cold enough to complain about it. So go ahead – complain about how miserable you feel in the 50-degree Miami winter temperatures, even if your aunt in Maine is experiencing a minus 15 wind chill.
Because if it's cold enough for the iguanas to freeze and fall out of the trees – it's definitely an unseasonably cold Miami winter.
And it will probably all be over in a week.