Rutgers climatologist discusses snowfall trends


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Photo by Chloe Coffman |

This past December was among the 19th-warmest on record, while last month’s snow cover was the fifth-lowest in North America over the last 50 years. Some of the warmth may be a result of human activity, but El Nino may also be contributing.


The record low temperatures this past winter have brought up questions regarding climate change. 

In New Jersey and in most of North America, snowfall and snow cover has been relatively stable compared to previous years, said David Robinson, a state climatologist and professor in the Department of Geography.

Although this February’s snow cover has been the fifth-lowest in North America over the last 50 years, there are no notable trends in snowfall in autumn and winter, he said.

“The real story is in the spring," Robinson said. “This is something we began to see occur in the 80s compared to the previous 20 years of satellite data. We see the snow cover leaving earlier in the spring ... days, if not several weeks, earlier than it did previously.”

This can be explained through the sensitivity of snow, he said. Although temperatures have been higher, this does not necessarily mean there will be less snow. In fact, it can oftentimes lead to the opposite effect.

Sometimes it is too cold to snow, he said. It is difficult to get a snowstorm when temperatures are low, because the atmosphere is not latent with moisture. Once the temperature increases to the freezing mark, there is more moisture in the atmosphere so if it precipitates, it can precipitate more. 

There are places on Earth where it can be expected to get snowier as the Earth warms, he said. But this trend only follows through to a certain point. On March 4, for example, parts of New Jersey were expecting 4 to 6 inches of snowfall at 32 degrees. 

"You warm that up another two degrees, that would be a rain event, not a snow one," he said. "That’s something really neat about the idea of snow — how absolutely dependent and sensitive it is to that 32-degree mark.”

Although a relatively stable amount of snow is observable, this does not negate the fact that the temperature has been higher, he said. 

December 2015 in New Jersey would have been the 19th-warmest December since 1895, hitting a record, he said. It was among the warmest Decembers by far.

There is also the need to see how much of this warmth is due to human activity and how much is due to natural causes, he said. The “El Nino,” which is a phenomenon associated with warm ocean temperatures, could also be contributing to the overall warmer temperature.

The volatile weather the state has been experiencing could have been predicted to some extent in earlier months due to knowledge on El Nino, he said.

The El Nino event happening in the tropical pacific has global effects, he said. The heat from the ocean is put it into the atmosphere, increasing global temperatures. 

"This year would've been warm whether or not we’ve been influencing the climate as humans at all. But when you’ve got the human influence and on top of that you add the El Nino influence, it makes a warm year even warmer,” he said. 

But there is always uncertainty in science, Robinson said. The El Nino event, a “natural” phenomenon, could be attributed to human activity in the first place.

“Humans are having a major impact on the global climate system. And a reasonable follow up would be, ‘With what level of certainty?' That’s when it becomes difficult to say this is 60 percent human and 40 percent natural,” he said. 

The whole issue of climate change is something that has recently begun to be discussed more commonly. How this issue is discussed is important in obtaining results for the future, he said.

Communities need to accept that climate is changing and humans have a large responsibility for that in recent decades, Robinson said.

“If we can we agree on that, then we can turn it into the social science and political science and say ‘How are we going to address this?’ and even ‘Should we address this?’” he said.

Focus is needed to resolve the issue, said Andrew Vex, a School of Engineering first-year student.

"We should care about it. But at the same time, burning gasoline gives us lots of things. We can't just stop everything because we need fossil fuels for things. I think it's a work in progress, at some point it will be a big problem," he said.

Although it is a larger issue that some people do not consider to be an immediate danger, climate change plays a role in other issues as well, Vex said. 

"There are some that feel even the Syrian crisis is in part driven by the multiple years of drought there recently," Robinson said. “It’s always there and one has to recognize that. By paying attention to that issue, it may go a long way in ameliorating other issues of the day.”

Wednesday's temperature is expected to reach 75 degrees Fahrenheit, with sunshine throughout the day.

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Madhuri Bhupathiraju is a School of Arts and Sciences first-year majoring in cell biology and neuroscience. She is a correspondent for The Daily Targum. Follow her on Twitter @madhuri448 for more.


Madhuri Bhupathiraju

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