A savage storm blew through New Jersey on January 4. Sheets of snow billowed across mostly empty highways, freezing the nerves of commerce and causing most businesses to close. State climatologist David Robinson was among those who stayed home that day, hunkering down in his Somerset County house with one eye on his laptop and another on a monitor showing weather radar.
“It is a massive nor’easter,” he said as wind howled outside. But Robinson had plenty to do besides enjoy the snow day. After the storm ended Robinson set to work compiling and posting online 150 official observations of the storm from weather stations around the state that would be used as official readings. Among other things, the state readings are written into snowplow contracts and determine what contractors charge to clients for plowing.
He also monitored the health of the state’s weather network, which is an automated array of 60 stations all around the state, constantly measuring and reporting temperature, wind speed, and other data. Robinson was enjoying every minute of it .
“All of us in this business are sort of weather geeks,” he said. “I’m appreciating the pounding that eastern coastal New Jersey is getting today.”
The unusually powerful storm came in the midst of a two-week deep freeze that Robinson says may have been partially the result of global climate change. Many climate scientists predict that as the global temperature rises, more powerful storms and erratic weather patterns will be more common. But Robinson cautioned against drawing any conclusions from a single weather event.
President Donald Trump, a climate change denier, made no such concessions to intellectual honesty, tweeting on December 28: “In the East, it could be the COLDEST New Year’s Eve on record. Perhaps we could use a little bit of that good old Global Warming that our Country, but not other countries, was going to pay TRILLIONS OF DOLLARS to protect against. Bundle up!”
Robinson compared Trump’s tweet to a stunt by Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, who brought a snowball to the Senate floor in 2015 to prove that global warming was a hoax.
“He’s simply wrong,” Robinson said. 2017, he said, was the third warmest year on record, just behind 2016 and 2015, with 2014 the fourth warmest. “Ice is diminishing and snow is melting earlier in the spring, which is something I’ve studied for almost 40 years in my academic research,” he said.
Robinson, a Rutgers professor of physical geography and climate, will give a free talk about the climate system and New Jersey’s place in it on Wednesday, January 17, at 7 p.m. at the Princeton Public Library. For more information, visit www.princetonlibrary.org.
Robinson says his fascination with the weather goes back to his childhood. He has physical proof of his early obsession in the form of weather measurements he took as a fourth grader while growing up in Tenafly. His parents were teachers, but they weren’t the ones who pushed him into his hobby turned career. “I never could figure out why,” he says. “I had an interest that many of my colleagues kiddingly call a genetic malfunction, which causes us to be able to remember our childhood weather memories.”
Robinson went to Dickinson College intending to major in pre-law and ended up with a degree in geology. While earning his doctorate at Columbia, he studied earth systems science.
He became state climatologist in 1993, when he joined the Rutgers faculty, making him the second-longest-serving among all the state climatologists. The position is a non-partisan one appointed by the school’s agricultural extension, which helps explain his long tenure. He says he has had no contact whatsoever with anyone from the Christie administration.
The job itself goes back to 1887, when George Cook of Rutgers became New Jersey’s first state climatologist, a role that was abandoned by the turn of the century. In 1956 the position became a federal job, but the program was abolished in 1972. In 1979, the state of New Jersey started its own climatology program, and Robinson is the fourth climatologist since then.
He assumes the state climatologist role alongside his teaching and research duties, making for 70-or-more-hour workweeks, but Robinson says he has no plans to give it up anytime soon. “If I had known the job existed, I would have wanted to be this when I grew up,” Robinson said.
In addition to the 65 weather stations he manages, he collects data from 250 volunteers around the state, and curates a weather record that goes back to the 1800s. “It’s been a labor of love,” he says.
He also gives hundreds of media interviews each year, and makes presentations to various groups, such as his appearance at the Princeton library.
“It’s part of a road show I do,” he says. “I might do these talks a couple dozen times a year. It’s part of an education program to make the citizens of the state more climate aware, and to make us a little more climate resilient.”