2018 had highest statewide average precipitation in NJ's recorded history
The wettest year on record for New Jersey was 2018, with a statewide average of 64.3 inches of precipitation, said David Robinson, a distinguished professor in the Department of Geography and state climatologist.
The data, gathered by the Office of the New Jersey Climatologist, includes rain, snow and sleet in its measurements. Robinson has run the office since 1991, managing all climate-related data for the state.
The yearly average for statewide precipitation in New Jersey is approximately 46.36 inches a year, based on the office’s database of the past 30 years.
“So we’ve blasted past that by almost 18 inches,” Robinson said.
He said that this precipitation record occurred without any major flooding events such as Hurricane Irene which made landfall in 2011, the second wettest year on record with 63.95 inches of average statewide precipitation.
Instead, Robinson said, the large amount of precipitation most likely came from the large number of smaller weather events occurring at any of the approximately three dozen local weather stations across the state.
There were 11 days with a station recording more than 4 inches of precipitation, with the largest day-long weather event occuring in Lakewood, N.J. with 6.98 inches. Robinson said that Lakewood received nearly 76 inches of precipitation throughout the year, but Mine Hill, N.J. receiving the most with 78.18 inches.
“We’ve got a handful of stations with 75 to 80 inches this year,” he said.
The years between 2011 and this year, as well as the years since New Jersey’s last drought, have fluctuated in extremes, Robinson said. Statewide precipitation has been below average in 4 of the last 7 years, and in the last decade before 2011, there were at least three years with averages above 50 inches.
The first year of a two-year drought in the state was 2001, which had 35.55 inches of average precipitation. He said this was the fourth driest year on record. Even so, there have been a lot more years on the wet side overall.
The data from the past 17 years is showing extremes, Robinson said, adding that 2011 and 2018 are both at least 5 inches of precipitation above the third largest year on record.
“It just shows you, wow,” Robinson said. “It depends on the atmospheric pattern that locks in for weeks and weeks at a time. You can be very wet, or you can very dry.”
These extremes are perhaps a result of climate change, but the increased wetness definitely has an underlying climate change signal to it. Robinson said as the atmosphere and oceans get warmer, they transfer and hold more moisture in the atmosphere. When you get that added moisture, it triggers a release of rain and snow in greater quantities than seen with lower moisture levels in the past.
Robinson said he cannot determine what the precipitation levels would have been without climate change. But he can determine that the phenomenon has had some impact on weather, making a wet year wetter.
“Underlying all our weather events these days is a climate signal,” he said. “But the day-to-day conditions are dictated by weather patterns.”
Robinson said that along with 2018 being the wettest on record, his office also found it to be the 11th warmest on record, with a statewide average temperature of 54.1 degrees Fahrenheit.
“With all the different scenarios,” Robinson said, “they all suggest that New Jersey, and the globe, will continue to warm.”
Relating this to precipitation is difficult because of the variances in weather, he said. But all models suggest similar or somewhat more precipitation for the entire North Atlantic region in the future.
Models also suggest there will possibly be drier summers and wetter winters in the future which, Robinson said, will cause New Jersey to have to find more water resources for growing crops and agriculture.
Climate system models for the future are created by generating models for the current and past climate conditions. Robinson said after doing that, they change the dials on the amount of carbon or methane, and see the effects on climate that occur.
More dramatic effects of climate change have been seen nationwide and globally. While New Jersey is likely to see increased precipitation, regions such as the Southwest are expected to be drier. Some of those effects are already occurring.
Robinson said he is working with the state, along with other Rutgers colleagues, on climate change initiatives such as a climate website, development of offshore wind energy and a climate resiliency plan.
But New Jersey cannot solve the global climate issue.
“It can be a huge inconvenience for New Jersey residents, for New Jersey infrastructure,” Robinson said. “But there are areas that are far more vulnerable to these changes, and in many respects, far less able to deal with them — impoverished nations sitting on sea level, and so on and so forth.”
The United Nations' scientific panel released a climate report in 2018 which, according to The New York Times, stated that by 2040 the world will warm by 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit from pre-industrial levels. This will cause a global crisis, bringing major droughts, land loss due to rising sea levels, among other effects and totaling in an estimated $54 trillion in global damages.
There are a lot ways to approach the climate change issue, Robinson said. But people waiting for certainty or the perfect solution will act when it is likely to be too late. The best thing society can do is slow down the effects of increased carbon in the atmosphere.
Carbon dioxide has a very long resident life in the atmosphere. He said no one has come close to finding a way to extract carbon from the atmosphere.
“There are ways we know we can reduce the amount of carbon dioxide being introduced into the atmosphere,” Robinson said. “But we’re not going to scrub the atmosphere clean any time soon. Perhaps with time, ingenuity will do that better. But by that point, models show we will be unable to reverse this course of action with rising sea levels and other climate impacts.”