El Niño and Florida FAQs

What is El Niño?

El Niño is a climate phenomenon linked to warming sea temperatures in the Pacific Ocean. The warmer waters cause the jet stream to move south of its typical position.

What does El Niño mean for Florida?

El Niño generally brings lower temperatures and above-average precipitation to Florida during the fall, winter and spring. Increased weather extremes across the southern U.S. increases the threat of severe weather in Florida during El Niño winters. The outlook from the Climate Prediction Center for Florida's 2023-2024 winter season calls for a strengthening El Niño lasting into spring.

What does El Niño mean for golf courses?

An El Niño creates challenges for growing turfgrass in Florida. The combination of wet, cool, and cloudy conditions can cause considerable turf stress. Turfgrasses need sunlight for growth. Prolonged cloudy weather causes turf to deplete carbohydrate reserves that are stored in roots, weakening the root system. Roots take up oxygen from soil and saturated soils make it nearly impossible for weakened roots to survive. Disease pressure is also amplified by low light, cool temperatures and moist/saturated conditions combined to weaken the plant and create a desirable habitat for pathogens. Other issues can include:

  • Increased stress on greens and collars
  • Slower turfgrass recovery from wear and divots
  • Frequent plugged lies
  • Short roots and larger ball marks on greens
  • More “mud balls” in fairways
  • Less ball roll in fairways
  • Tire rutting from mowers and golf cart
  • Higher-than-normal water levels in lakes and ponds

What makes El Niño’s impact on Florida unique?

In Florida, there is increased play in winter months along with the intensity of management to meet the needs of the golfers coming to Florida during the winter months. Even in a normal year, warm-season turfgrasses struggle in the winter months due to normally cooler temperatures (less than optimal for warm-season turfgrasses) and shorter day lengths. South of Orlando, golfer demand makes superintendents push these grasses beyond their ideal conditions. Stress is very normal during winter months but when you couple these normal conditions with an El Niño year, the problem is exacerbated.

What can superintendents do?

Due to El Niño, superintendents will need to manage the turf in significantly different ways than most years. Some of the practices may include:

  • Increasing mowing heights (or even skipping mowing the greens) so the greens won’t be stressed. Turfgrass leaves are like miniature solar panels. Therefore, providing greater leaf area by increasing mowing heights will allow turf to create more energy through photosynthesis, promoting turf health and deeper roots. While this may slow green speeds, it is worth sacrificing a little bit of playability in the short term for long-term turf health.
  • Increased aeration. Venting with small tines is recommended at least monthly during normal winter months. Some facilities are venting greens as frequently as every week. Venting improves rooting by relieving soil compaction and increasing soil oxygen.
  • Plant protectants. Fungicides are being applied at many facilities to reduce disease and improve turf growth. Leaf spot and Pythium diseases have been among the most common pathogens on golf courses over the past few weeks.
  • Traffic management. More courses than normal may adopt “cart path only” policies because of saturated soil conditions. This is done to reduce cart traffic stress.
  • Fairway topdressing. “Mud balls” are a common problem when fairway soils remain saturated and are caused, in part, by an undiluted surface layer of organic matter. This thick, spongy layer causes more plugged lies and increases the occurrence of mud – i.e., organic matter – on balls. While fairway topdressing is costly, it certainly improves playability – especially surface firmness – and helps reduce the occurrence of “mud balls” in fairways with excessive organic matter.

  • In the end, superintendents need drier weather and more sunlight to return their courses to pre-El Niño conditions.