Ask a state climatologist: Q & A with New Jersey’s David Robinson

Over the course of the summer, I will be interviewing various state climatologists about their day-to-day responsibilities, research projects, and, of course, any relevant weather which their state has experienced.  My first interviewee is Dr. David Robinson, the state climatologist for New Jersey. – Adam Rainear (CWG summer intern)

David Robinson, New Jersey state climatologist David Robinson, New Jersey state climatologist

Q: What are your responsibilities at New Jersey State Climatologist?

A: The responsibilities are generally three-part.

One is we gather data; we gather information on all things weather and climate in the state.  The overarching goal of our office is to be the focal point, the go-to place for weather and climate in New Jersey, although we do not do forecasting.  We archive and interpret data, even paleo-climate data.  We also have our automated New Jersey Climate and Weather Network.  [We] are also the co-coordinators for the New Jersey CoCoRaHs chapter.

Number two: we are involved with research on the weather and climate of the state.  By involved, that means we do it in-house.  We provide information and interpretation of information and results for others to do pretty much independently, or we collaborate.    We will provide some counsel to the private sector.

Finally, [a responsibility] is outreach.  That of course is an active website, the hundreds of interviews with the media – a great way for outreach and teaching – and, then, dozens upon dozens of presentations.

Q: Last October Hurricane Sandy decimated the Jersey coastline.  About a month after Memorial Day, how do you feel the recovery has gone, as a whole, for the state of NJ? 

A: As a whole, I think it’s been pretty remarkable.  There has been such [a] tremendous effort.  It’s fortunate that we are such an affluent and well-organized state.  There were controversies over debris removal contracts and such, but a lot got cleaned out [and] cleaned up pretty quickly – both from the commercial side and to show the fact that the shore is back.  Even in the short term, utilities got repaired relatively quickly.  Transportation got back relatively quickly.

…. However, it’s not done yet.

A lot of what’s not done is behind the scenes.  It’s off the main roads, off the boardwalks, and that’s a little disconcerting.  Many people remain out of their homes.  They’re just beginning to get enough information on how to rebuild, if they can afford to rebuild.  There are still battles with insurance and stuff.  There are still a lot of people hurting out there.

Q: June has been a wet one in New Jersey, with many locations around the state being well above average, and even breaking records.  What’s the pattern like with all the rainfall?

A: Try every location being above average [chuckles].  We’re knocking on the door of the wettest June on record.  The other interesting thing is, the four of the seven wettest Junes were in ’03, ’06, ’09, and ’13.  But, that’s a question of why, which begs some patience.  Hypothetically it’s kind of interesting though.  Could it be because June is beginning more summer-like, temperature and precip wise?  July and August are the two wettest months of the year [in New Jersey].

It wasn’t just [TS] Andrea, there have been several heavy rainfalls.  For a while there, we were in that ring of fire [thunderstorm activity] on the edge of the ridge [heat dome].  Then, every so often we have a trough dip through the area.  We just haven’t been in a stable ridge for [more than] a couple of days.  We’ve just been in the right place to get the moisture streams.

Q: New Jersey went through so many months with above average monthly temperatures.  Do you see this trend keeping up in months to come?

A:  Yeah, we [New Jersey] went 21 consecutive months with above average temperatures.  That ended with November.  We had November, February, and March were below average, by a little bit.  And that’s based on the 1981-2010 average mean.  That’s a rather forgiving mean, because it’s the warmest period on record.  If you compare it to the full record back to the late 19th century, it makes the warmth even more impressive in recent years.  So, we have been cooking in New Jersey … if you see how it fits in with what models suggest, then you’ve got to ascribe some of it to anthropogenic warming.

Nothing since May or April has hinted at the pattern setting up for a long hot summer [though].

Q: Just a few winters from record breaking snowfall, these past two winters were well below average, where did all the snow go?

A: Yeah, well, [the question is], why was all the snow there in 09-10 and 10-11? There’s no trend in snowfall in the Mid-Atlantic over time.  [In New Jersey], we’ve had some gang-buster years, with the back-to-back years of heavy snowfall [09-10 and 10-11], one after another.  But, last winter we ended up well within our standard deviation.  Those back-to-back large years were very unusual.   I don’t think [this current pattern of less snowfall] is all that surprising.  The folks in D.C. will understand.  They went from feast to famine.

Q: Being part of the Rutgers Geography staff, you take part in many research projects at Rutgers.  What are some of your research topics?

 A: My global snow work, primarily looking at the distribution of snow over continents.  I maintain the longest continuous satellite environmental data record of a particular variable, that being snow-cover extent over northern hemisphere lands.  It goes back to the late 1960s, and we’ve got continuous monitoring of that ever since.  For instance, this past May is the third lowest May extent of snow cover over North America and Eurasia.  It’s not just monitoring snow cover though; it’s also interactions between that and climate.

Q: You also personally take part in CoCoRaHs (Community Collaborative Rain, Hail & Snow Network) at your own home.  What does CoCoRAHs help forecasters and climate scientists do?  What does the data help with?

A: For the forecasting side of it, CoCoRaHs can help if people put in special reports, rather than traditional daily reports.  It’s kind of like a spotter.  People can put in flash flooding reports, which can help with warnings.  For the river forecast centers, seeing how much rain fell might not be particularly useful if you’re talking about flooding of a stream, but if you’re talking about the main stem of the Delaware [River], of the Potomac, or the Susquehanna, where you are talking about things more broadly, it’s very useful to have that detailed information on rainfall to make a credible forecast on flooding, crest heights, or such.  This is so valuable to help determine defenses, whether you need to sandbag on top of levees or things like that.

CoCoRaHs also is a mean of monitoring drought.  A report of no precipitation acts as important as a report of precipitation, particularly when you get into a drought situation.  It has a myriad of useful tools, for the hydrologic community at large.  Plus, it’s just neat to see the distribution of rainfall on a local scale.

Q: Finally, I know you’re a big Yankees fan.  Will the Yankees be able to “weather” the injuries and win their division to the chagrin of the Orioles fans in the Baltimore region? 

A: I love it.  “Weather” all the injuries.  No, they’re not going to be able to “weather” all the injuries unless some of the players step up, maybe A-Rod, Granderson, or Jeter.  They were doing it will smoke and mirrors with Wells and Overbay and Nix.  The fact is, with the American League East, and Toronto playing great ball, all the teams may end up being separated by 10 games.  But you know baseball, a team can go into a swoon, and the Yanks are teetering on that.

Dr. David Robinson is the New Jersey State Climatologist.  Robinson has been the State Climatologist since 1991, and he is also a professor in the Department of Geography at Rutgers University.

Robinson graduated from Dickinson College with a Bachelors degree in Geology in 1977 and went on to earn his Master’s and Doctorate from Columbia University.  He has researched at both Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and the US National Climatic Data Center (NCDC).  His research interests include state and regional climate change in addition to snow cover extent.

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