The State We're In
How will climate change impact New Jersey?
David Robinson, New Jersey’s official climatologist for the past 27 years, spends much of his time keeping up on research about climate change and how it’s affecting this state we’re in. He’s also a scientist and professor at Rutgers University, specializing in tracking global snow cover as a measure of how quickly the Earth is warming.
As state climatologist, he frequently speaks about climate change to groups, ranging from students to farmers to conservationists. Here, he answers some pressing questions about what climate change means to New Jerseyans and what we can do about it.
What do you say to those who are skeptical about climate change being caused by human actions?
You’d have to throw physics out the window if you believe that you can keep putting more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere without having an effect. We’re seeing changes, and the connections are undeniable.
How is climate change affecting temperatures in New Jersey?
We’ve been keeping records on temperatures in New Jersey since 1895. Of the 10 warmest summers during this period, nine of them have been in the last 20 years. That’s pretty startling. These are things that are demonstrably happening. The atmosphere is warmer and ocean temperatures are warmer.
Last year was extremely rainy in New Jersey. Did it set a record?
2018 was the wettest on record going back to 1895. New Jersey had 64.79 inches of precipitation. That’s 18.43 inches above the statewide normal – and we did not have a major tropical storm hit us last year, like a (Hurricane) Irene or Floyd.
What caused this wet weather?
There was a near constant influx of moisture from the south, sometimes from a dip in the jet stream across the eastern half of the United States. Picture the jet stream as a big U, with New Jersey on the right side of the U. Moisture from the south just rode up that side of the U. It was relentless.
How much can we attribute to natural variability, and how much to man-made climate change?
To climatologists, there’s a very strong human fingerprint on what’s been happening: intensifying tropical systems, the amount of precipitation, the magnitude of heat waves and drought. We may be changing the actual patterns of the flow of the jet stream, making it slower and more “wavy.”
Was 2018 an exception, or can we expect wetter weather in the future?
I believe we will continue to see warmer and wetter conditions in the future. There’s about 4 percent more moisture in the atmosphere than there used to be and greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide continue to increase. But weather will still be variable. I think summers will be hotter but not necessarily wetter. But it will probably be wetter during the cooler seasons.
How will this affect New Jersey’s water supply and farmers?
I think we’re going to see more flash droughts. They may not be long lasting, but they will be worrisome, particularly in summer. That’s not great news for farmers in New Jersey, and not great news for our finite reservoirs. I’ve seen reservoirs filled on May 1 and a drought watch in effect by Aug. 15. We can never let our guard down. We have to always be conservation-minded when it comes to our limited water supply.
How do you communicate climate change urgency to people?
One way is by telling stories. In New Jersey, you can talk to people about sunny day flooding caused by rising sea level. That’s something we’re seeing up and down the East Coast. And with Superstorm Sandy, we’re able to show through (computer) models that it was a stronger storm than it would have been without warmer ocean temperatures.
If climate change is already happening, is there any point to trying to change human behavior to stop it?
The whole idea is to try to slow things down. I use the analogy of a train leaving the station. The train may have left the station, but you can keep your hand on the throttle and slow it down.
What can people do to slow down climate change?
In the simplest sense, it’s using energy more efficiently and using clean energy. When I’m talking to young kids, I tell them to make sure to turn the lights out before leaving a room. For adults, it’s turning the thermostat down a few degrees in the winter and up a few degrees in the summer. And voting. If you don’t vote, you can’t complain that no one is doing anything (about climate change). Collectively, everything everyone does can make a difference.
Will it be enough?
Ultimately, we’ll have to adapt to climate change – we can’t just mitigate it away. But the more we mitigate, the more time we’ll have to adapt. The year 2100 used to seem so far away, but the children being born right now will likely live to see that. The predictions are that sea level will be at least three feet above where it is now by 2100.
How much warming will we see by 2100?
The (computer) models vary in the magnitude of warming. It all depends on the amount of greenhouse emissions that are projected – whether there’s more, less or the same as now. Some models say 3 degrees Fahrenheit and some say 10 degrees. We just don’t know how much we’ll follow through with the development of more clean energy, and lower emissions.
Can New Jersey adapt to sea level rise?
Right now, we can keep up with dune rebuilding and beach replenishment, but how long can we do this? I think New Jersey is one of the states that will fight it as long as we can, just because of the dollars and cents of it. But there are real issues our children and grandchildren will be facing.
What are the most significant climate change studies of the past year?
I think it was the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change study, which warns about the impacts of warming above 1.5 degrees Celsius. In New Jersey, we still don’t have a definitive climate change study. We need a major New Jersey climate assessment. It would give us a greater understanding of what’s been happening, what’s happening right now and what may happen in the rest of the century.
Dave, who just became a grandfather, is optimistic that New Jerseyans will take action to help slow the throttle on climate change – and press their elected officials to do the same – so that today’s children will inherit a livable planet.
It all starts with learning more about the science behind global warming. To read the special report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, go to https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/.
To read the National Climate Assessment released in November, go to https://nca2014.globalchange.gov/report.
To find out about the Rutgers Climate Change program, which Dave Robinson heads, go to https://climate.rutgers.edu/stateclim/.
About the Author
Michele S. Byers
Michele joined New Jersey Conservation in 1982 as coordinator of our advocacy efforts in the Pine Barrens. In 1999 Michele became Executive Director of New Jersey Conservation Foundation. View her full bio here.
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