A Climate Scientist Recounts Ultimate Challenge: Tracking Sandy
It was the night Hurricane Sandy struck New Jersey.
Power was going down throughout the region. A travel ban was in effect. People huddled at home, anxious for information.
Enter David Robinson, Rutgers professor and state climatologist. With tiny flashlights barely illuminating his face, Robinson used Skype, a laptop, and a cellular device to launch a broadcast from his darkened home for the 11 p.m. news on NJTV.
In the ensuing two-minute report, Robinson performed his own unique brand of public service - one that has made him a renowned figure in New Jersey for more than two decades.
With a tone of voice that sounded like he could be your next-door neighbor, Robinson gave the specifics of the storm, put the disaster into historical context, and expressed what most people were feeling at the time.
“I really fear what we are going to see come daylight in terms of all the wind damage that occurred this evening and the high tides that came in after dark,” said Robinson, a professor of geography in the School of Arts and Sciences.
News anchor Mike Schneider marveled at Robinson’s tenacity.
“He has no power tonight, but through the power of a Skype and a flashlight, David can tell us the story,” Schneider explained to his viewers.
Indeed, throughout Hurricane Sandy, Robinson and his staff at the Office of the New Jersey State Climatologist employed a mix of technology and old-fashioned ingenuity to keep citizens informed about one of the worst catastrophes in the state’s history.
“The amazing thing about that interview – once you got past the fact that I looked like a jack-o-lantern - was that I was able to have a sense of what was going on in the state despite being in my house with no lights,” Robinson said in a recent interview. “We were able to keep our finger on the pulse of what was happening, minute by minute around the state, and that’s a tremendous success story.”
University President Robert L. Barchi recently praised Robinson and his staff for their performance during the crisis.
“It was truly a tremendous team effort that served the state well and demonstrated the value of Rutgers as a vital resource of information and guidance for our citizens and public officials,” Barchi said in a letter to Robinson.
The Office of the New Jersey State Climatologist is part of the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station and based within the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences. Its three-pronged mission is to collect climate data, conduct research, and educate and inform the public.
Robinson, who has held the position since 1991, has greatly raised the visibility of the office and transformed it into an indispensable source of public information – for researchers, journalists or just ordinary citizens. With his keen understanding of weather patterns, and his ability to explain it in terms a general audience understands, Robinson has become one of the most quoted figures in the state’s media landscape.
“In a weather emergency my phone starts ringing - the reporters are calling, and I have to go into that mode,” he said. “I remember years ago, I came in from shoveling my driveway, sat down in my living room, and for the next five hours gave 20 interviews.”
During the weeks before, during, and after Sandy, Robinson gave about 90 interviews to outlets ranging from the Discovery Channel to Al Jazeera.
His key resource during the storm was the network of 50 automated weather stations that his office maintains up and down the state. The stations provide vital meteorological data, giving updates every five minutes. Despite Sandy’s ferocity, most of the weather stations continued functioning during the storm, with many running on solar power or on generators at State Police and emergency management stations.
“So just being at home I could go online and know how strong the winds had been or how much rain had fallen,” Robinson said. “I was also able to see what was happening with the storm surge.
“By 8:00 in the evening. I knew we were already three feet above the previous record surge at Sandy Hook, which occurred during Hurricane Donna back in 1960.”
Before Sandy hit the region, Robinson and his staff launched a special website, or dashboard, that broke down the data into Top 10 categories, showing users what areas had the highest wind gusts or most rainfall, and providing data every five minutes, for the previous hour and for the storm to date.
The site garnered 30,000 unique hits before the power outages plunged the state into darkness. The site was used extensively by the media, the National Weather Service, and the state’s Regional Operations Intelligence Center in West Trenton, which served as central command for Governor Christie and state agencies.
Robinson, a Tenafly native, became a weather enthusiast as a kindergartner in 1960, when Hurricane Donna struck, followed by one of the snowiest winters of the 20th century.
"Like many with a love for weather and climate, this fascination came at a young age," he said.
He has been at Rutgers since 1989. As a professor of geography, he’s internationally recognized for his scholarship in climate dynamics and change, particularly focused on global snow cover. He chaired the department for 12 years and teaches courses on physical geography, remote sensing, and climate dynamics.
Now living in what he calls the “post Sandy-era,” Robinson said his role as scholar and as state climatologist are more critical than ever before.
“After Sandy, one of my colleagues who is approaching retirement age told me: ‘Dave, there is too much to do now. I can’t retire,”’ Robinson said. “The enthusiasm he has, to learn more, to study more, it’s the exact same way with me.”