Profile: The Man Who’s Watching the Weather in New Jersey

Scott Gurian | May 14, 2014 | Profiles
David Robinson has served as the state's climatologist for more than two decades

David Robinson, New Jersey state climatologist.
Who he is: For the past 23 years, Robinson has served as New Jersey’s state climatologist. He holds a doctorate, and is also a professor and former chair of the geography department at Rutgers.

Age: 58

What he does: The mission of the state climate office — where Robinson works — is to “serve the state of New Jersey’s weather and climate needs.” Though the office doesn’t actually forecast the weather, it does monitor and keep archival records of weather conditions through a network of 56 reporting stations that send updates every five minutes around the clock, as well as 250 volunteers statewide.

Robinson also oversees weather research for various state agencies: For example, a few months ago the Office of Emergency Management asked his team to prepare a report on weather and climate risks in advance of Super Bowl Sunday. In the past, he’s prepared climate data for the agriculture, environmental, transportation, and tourism communities. “Everything at times has some relationship with weather and climate,” he says. “We help the stakeholders make decisions.”

A big part of his job also involves outreach. He estimates he does about 350 interviews each year, and is invited to speak several times a week to everyone from local Rotary clubs to professional organizations. Between everything, he says he routinely works 60 to 70 hours a week.

Who he works for: Robinson was appointed to his position through Rutgers. He stresses that the state climatologist is not a political appointment, so while he occasionally meets with state officials — particularly in the Department of Environmental Protection and the Office of Emergency Management — he does not report to the governor and says he’s not subject to political influence from whatever administration may be in charge, even when it comes to hot-button issues like global warming. “I’ve never felt pressure to say something or not say something, and I am most grateful,” he says. “I feel some level of freedom as an academic that perhaps my colleagues in state and federal agencies don’t.”

Staking a middle ground: While Robinson says he never feels a need to mince words, he’s also careful not to abuse his freedom to speak openly. “I find it somewhat satisfying,” he says, “that at times I’m assailed from ultra-environmentalists for not being vocal and outspoken enough as much as I’m assailed by those who are not accepting or understanding of what might be happening in terms of climate for speaking too much.” That shows, he says, that he’d doing his job.

Forecasting New Jersey’s future: Robinson says he specializes more in gathering and examining empirical data than on forecasting what conditions will be like in the decades ahead. “I know enough about models that I can evaluate the output, but I am not a modeler myself,” he says. He does work hand in hand with other scientists and researchers, though, who are working on predicting what the future may hold.

That said, he acknowledges that research specific to New Jersey’s climate and its future is pretty lightly funded, so many of the predictions his colleagues use are extrapolated from national or regional analyses. Unlike some other states, he says New Jersey has never had a major climate study and has never devoted many resources to this area. “There’s been some variation in the level of attention paid over different administrations,” he says, but for the most part, the lack of interest seems to be bipartisan. “You can’t pick on one side of the aisle or the other.”

On the importance of climate research: In the aftermath of Sandy, Gov. Chris Christie famously downplayed the suggestion that climate change was a contributing factor to the storm, calling it an “esoteric discussion.” Robinson disagrees. It’s clear that sea levels have risen over the past century, he says, and every inch matters when a storm surge occurs. In addition, he notes that the 22 months prior to Sandy was the longest stretch of above-average temperatures in over a century of record keeping. A recent study ran a model of what would have happened if sea surface temperatures had been closer to normal and found that Sandy would have been a much weaker storm. It’s clear, he says, that Sandy “would have been a nasty storm anyway, but was made nastier due to the underlying influences of climate change.”

Thoughts on the politicization of climate science: “When I said in the ’80s that I was a climatologist, people thought I mixed drinks or something like that,” Robinson says jokingly. “Now everybody knows what a climatologist is, and they certainly have an opinion about the climate.”

But while he appreciates the renewed interest in his work, he says the increased attention can also be demoralizing “when you do an honest day’s work and you’re accused of perpetuating a hoax.” The criticisms can also be inspirational, though, he chuckles. “If anybody in their right mind thinks that an eclectic group of professors and federal scientists can come together and take a pledge to perpetuate a hoax that climate is changing and that humans are involved in climate change, they don’t know scientists and professors.”

As for the claim that scientists just want research money, he says that funding is highly competitive and often difficult to secure. But “despite some of the angst that comes with it,” he says, “I wouldn’t want any other career.”

Unexpected parts of his job: The state climate office often gets calls from authors and researchers, seeking information from its archives so they can be accurate in their depictions of historical events. For example, Robinson says he’s had novelists contact him to ask what the weather was like during the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and during a spate of shark attacks that occurred back in 1916. Law firms conducting forensic meteorology contact him to inquire about weather conditions when representing clients involved in traffic accidents. Snow-plowing contractors use the official snowfall totals listed on the climate office’s website to determine how much to bill. Robinson says he’s also gotten numerous calls from insurance companies and policyholders seeking detailed weather data to settle claims disputes in the aftermath of Sandy.

What he’s been working on: Robinson was involved in the formation of the recently released National Climate Assessment, a federal report warning about the future effects of climate change across the country.

He also continues to participate on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an international body of scientists that issues assessments on the risks and potential impacts of a warming planet. In addition, he spends a lot of time researching polar climate science, which has long been an interest of his. “Everybody’s got a niche,” he says.

Closer to home, he’s working on creating a coastal storm severity index to better explain to the public and emergency management officials what the impending threats might be of approaching storms. And he’s drafting a historic snowfall database for the state.

Background: Robinson grew up in Tenafly and has lived in New Jersey most of his life. In his spare time, he enjoys outdoors activities like hiking and cross-country skiing. When he was younger, he also enjoyed singing, including in a ‘50s group when he was in college. “I don’t think a lot of people know that there’s some latent vocal talent,” he laughs. “I just haven’t had much time to do it in recent years.”

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