Rutgers Professor David Robinson: Weather Geek

Climatologist David Robinson indulges his fascination with weather by collecting swaths of data and analyzing critical weather events.

David Robinson
New Jersey state climatologist David Robinson indulges his fascination with snow cover on a recent trip to Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.
Courtesy of David Robinson.

David Robinson caught the weather bug during his first week of kindergarten in Tenafly in 1960, when New Jersey got hit by the remnants of Hurricane Donna. The following winter, the state experienced record-setting snowfall. By fourth grade, Robinson had accumulated a cache of “weather kits”—hobby sets with rain collectors, barometers and gauges of all sorts. A self-described weather geek, he has for the last 22 years lived his childhood dream as the New Jersey state climatologist, the go-to guy for weather research and statistics for anyone from the governor to farmers to the home gardener.

Robinson is not a meteorologist—in fact, he is a professor of geography at Rutgers—but he is responsible for collecting climatological data that can help with things like flood abatement, bridge elevations and storm preparations. He is also a media darling who, in the three weeks surrounding Sandy, gave 90 interviews and appeared live on NJTV during the storm. Sandy was indeed a signal event, says Robinson, but it may well be just one of a number of critical weather events in New Jersey’s future.

New Jersey Monthly: Was Sandy a result of climate change and what does it portend for the future?

David Robinson: I don’t think you can say it is a direct result or harbinger. It was not simply because of climate change, and there is no way of predicting when the next Sandy will come. But there is some suggestion in climate models that extremes could become more frequent in the future. There may be no reconstruction of Sandy, but it certainly seems likely there will be more major storms.

NJM: What other weather extremes are apparent in New Jersey?

DR: This past calendar year was the warmest on record in New Jersey back to 1895, when we started keeping records. The year leading into Irene [which struck in 2011], which was devastating, was the wettest year on record. So those storms were not only extremes, but the big picture involves 21 months of above-average temperatures.

NJM: But you say that even being hot and wet is not as bad as being dry.

DR: A drought is definitely more devastating over time. Sandy had its impact, but you can recover. A drought goes on and on and on. We have had one bad drought in my time as climatologist, in 2002, and smaller ones in 1995 and 2005, but nothing like you saw in Texas last year. Yet if things go to extremes, we could see something like the drought from 1963 to ’65, which was horrible. If there is no water, that kills agriculture, forces rationing, affects disease if drinking water suffers. With Sandy, you knew it would eventually leave. A drought, as you see, can be three years.

NJM: You have gotten people involved in helping provide weather data. How does that work?

DR: We have 50 official stations around the state that report statistics every five minutes, but we also have a group of 250 active weather observers who report to us every day. We have training sessions so they feel engaged and the quality of their data is good. Mostly they tell us how much rain or how much snow fell. These are citizen scientists at their very best, and they follow a lifelong pursuit.

NJM: What is your favorite lifelong weather pursuit?

DR: Actually, in the scientific world I am known as the Snow Man. My primary research, going back to my time at graduate school at Columbia, is worldwide snow cover. I was the first to publish, back in 1990, about the early loss of spring snow cover around the world. The snow cover is not changing a lot in the fall and winter, but it is certainly melting earlier in the spring—and climate models, yes, suggest that is due to climate change.

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