Gulf Shores, Alabama is well-known in the beach volleyball scene, having hosted several major tournaments like the Gulf Coast Beach Fest Beach National Qualifier, NCAA Beach Volleyball Championships and others. Many teams will play in Gulf Shores this summer. As a part of tournament prep, here is information about the weather you may encounter from Brandon Black, a forecaster for the National Weather Service in Mobile, Alabama.
The Big Picture: Summertime High Pressure
In the summer, a large area of high pressure known as the “Bermuda High” develops over the Atlantic Ocean. In the Northern Hemisphere, wind flows in a clockwise direction around high pressure. Since the U.S. is on the western side of this high, winds come from the south-southeast direction, bringing up warm, moisture-rich air from the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean into the Southeast United States. That’s why it feels humid in these areas.
Gulf Coast Humidity
Humidity is measured by the dew point temperature, the air temperature necessary for water to condense. The higher the dew point, the more moisture is in the air and the stickier it will feel outside.
Check the dew point temperatures before arriving at Gulf Shores. Also, maintain good hydration habits.
“It’s important to bring water and stay hydrated,” Black advises, “humidity can take a lot out of you, especially if you’re from dryer areas.” It impacts the body’s ability to cool off as sweat cannot evaporate as efficiently in higher humidity.
Marvelous in May
Black suggests early May is the best time to visit Gulf Shores. “May is one of the dryer months and we only have to worry about one or two spring storms systems that come through,” he says. Air temperatures are still mild by Gulf standards with highs in the 80s and lower dew points. However, the weather pattern shifts as the month progresses. “By early June, we start to see our hottest air temperatures, though it is not as humid as it is in July through September,” Black notes.
The Sea Breeze
Sea breeze – wind that comes onshore from a body of water and is caused by temperature differences between land and the water – drives summer weather patterns in Gulf Shores. Land heats up faster than water, and as warm air rises, it creates a localized area of low pressure.
This means there is now an area of relatively higher pressure over the water. Since winds blow from areas of high pressure to areas of low pressure, air over the water comes onshore, creating winds. The greater the temperature difference, the stronger the winds. That is why the sea breeze is more prominent in the summer when the land is significantly warmer than the ocean. Additionally, this is a steady wind, not gusty, and is faster on the beach than inland.
Gulf Shores is on an east-west oriented coastline, so the sea breeze is usually coming from the south, i.e., a cross-court wind . “The intensity is very predictable,” states Black, “with winds coming in at 15-20 miles per hour. “Winds are usually from the south, but the big thing is to figure out WHEN they start. That is when you can look at the flags on the lifeguard towers for visual cues.” Though, he adds, “we know that it picks up right around 1-2 p.m. and will stick around until about 4-5 p.m.”
This assumes that a court is exposed, with no bleachers or large structures within its vicinity. These structures can block oncoming winds and create swirling breezes in their wake..
Unlike the spring storms that taper off in May, the majority of storms in June through August are triggered by the sea breeze. Because these thunderstorms are tied to the sea breeze, they are easier to anticipate. “Every day there’s a 30-40% chance that it will rain,” says Black. “With sea breeze thunderstorms, we know they always happen in the afternoon, so it’s best to get as much done as possible in the morning.”
Although sea breeze storms affect inland parts of the coast more often than the beach itself, it is important to stay vigilant. “Lightning can strike even if it isn’t raining where you are,” Black warns. “When you’re on the beach looking inland, you may start to see white, puffy, cotton-ball clouds. That’s the front of the sea breeze.”
“When those clouds start to grow and look like large pillars, that’s a developing thunderstorm. You have about 45 minutes to an hour from that point before the rain starts, and it’s a good way to know when to wrap up any beach activities. These clouds start building at around 3 – 4 p.m., and, by 5 or 6, the storms start. You should be off the beach.”
The good news is these thunderstorms dissipate quickly. “The rain only lasts a few minutes to an hour. Once it clears out, you can be out on the beach again,” Black says.
If you have circled early May on your calendar and are planning to travel to Gulf Shores, here are some final notes:
“You will burn,” Black states. “There is no tanning. Down here, we have a high angle of sun, so it’s more direct. Bring sunscreen and wear a hat.”
Bring sand socks or footwear
Especially late in the summer. “We have white sand and for the most part it just sits there baking in the sun and creates a top layer that can burn your feet.”
Look at the lifeguard flags
If you plan on jumping in the water after finishing a match, be diligent about water conditions. “Rip currents are the leading cause of weather-related deaths in our area,” Black says. “It’s gone up in the past 20 years as more and more people come to visit from out of town and don’t know what to do when they get caught in one. Look at the lifeguard towers and the flags there. They’re also usually posted in front of the beach as people arrive. Talk to the lifeguards, too. They’ll know the water conditions better than anyone.” If you don’t know what the colors mean, here is a brief guide:
- Yellow – Moderate surf or currents
- Red – Dangerous surf or currents
- Two Red Flags – Water is closed
- Purple – Dangerous marine life is present
For more information about lifeguard flags, visit the Gulf Shores webpage on the subject.
Tropical Storms or Hurricanes
“These are the only real change to the summer weather pattern, and how many there are varies yearlyeach year,” according to Black. “We would know that it’s coming well in advance.”
To all the teams gearing up for Gulf Shores, best of luck as the season commences. Stay well, and we look forward to seeing you on the beach! – CA