Dickinson College Homepage Dickinson Magazine This issue of the Dickinson Magazine was mailed on Monday, March 27, 2006
From This Issue
Volume 83 • Number 4
Spring 2006

Sky Pilot
Gales, gusts and global warming are concerns of climatologist David Robinson’77
By Barbara Snyder Stambaugh

When David Robinson ’77 talks, all sorts of people listen—crime-scene investigators, cranberry growers, NASA scientists, even turtle-migration patrols.

They all want to know about the weather—or, more accurately, about the climate.

“Weather is what happens today and next week,” he says. “Climate encompasses everything from this morning back to the beginning of time—and into the future … weeks, months, seasons or centuries.”

Robinson is the state climatologist of New Jersey, which means he’s responsible for the state’s atmospheric data. Ever since Robinson took the job in 1991, he’s been collecting, recording, researching and even predicting climate details and trends in the Garden State, while overseeing a network of about 80 weather stations.

But Robinson wears other hats. He’s also a renowned expert on global snow cover, with ongoing grant-funded research on where snow cover is, where it used to be and where it should be, from Asbury Park to the Arctic Cap.

Then there’s his regular, full-time job: Robinson is a Rutgers University professor of geology and department chair. Taken together, he has four jobs. It’s a hectic combination.

“Ask my family,” he says of his schedule. “I was in San Francisco last month. April, I’ll be in China. And I could travel more than I do. I had to turn down Vienna.”

When Robinson isn’t on the road, he might be teaching or working in his office at Rutgers, juggling daily requests for atmospheric data and 300 yearly calls from the media.

“It’s more like 500, if there’s a drought,” he says, good naturedly.

He’s also a machine when it comes to productivity. His curriculum vitae is half-an-inch thick. Over the last 25 years, he’s cranked out 73 presented papers, 43 invited lectures, 71 authored or co-authored refereed articles, 11 book chapters, 76 nonrefereed publications, and a whopping 40 research grants totaling $6,287,601. Robinson has had grant money at his disposal every single day since he received his doctorate in 1984.

“It’s pretty rare to go that long,” he says. “But I found a niche with snow research. I was able to write and establish a reputation. I have wonderful grad students and great people that I’ve collaborated with.”

Somehow, he’s also Boy Scout Troop 489’s assistant scoutmaster. This runs in his family. Robinson and both of his sons are Eagle Scouts. “At 85, my father still goes to the meetings of my old troop,” he says.

Robinson thrives on about five hours of sleep at night. And it’s easy to hear in his voice the exuberant kid who thought giant snowstorms were the best thing ever.

“Most of us ‘weather weenies’ can trace it back to childhood,” he says of his growing-up years in Bergen County, N.J., about an hour from where he lives now, in Hillsborough. “I was that kid with the transistor radio tucked under my pillow, trying to pick up a distant radio station to find out where it was snowing and if we were going to get a nor’easter.”

He started keeping weather records in fourth grade. Since the Weather Channel didn’t exist and other weather aficionados were “somewhat closeted,” his only connection to the in-depth climate analysis that he craved was a magazine called Weatherwise. Today Robinson considers it one of his greatest honors that he later became a close friend and colleague of the magazine’s founder and publisher, the late David Ludlum, whom Robinson considered to be the nation’s foremost climate historian.

For a self-described weather nut, Robinson’s choice of geology as a major at Dickinson, followed by three more geology degrees from Columbia University, seems rather earthbound.

“I picked geology because the astronomy line at registration was longer,” he jokes.

But there is a straight line to be followed from Robinson’s early higher-education experiences to where he is today.

“It was the professors, like Ken Laws and Noel Potter. They fed my interests in meteorology, surficial processes and the sculpting of landscapes,” he says. “And there was a National Weather Service observing station in Carlisle with a volunteer observer who kept records from 1910 through the 1970s. I was able to analyze those original records while I was at Dickinson.”

Between Robinson’s junior and senior years, Ken Wolgemuth, then a Dickinson professor of geology, got him “in the side door” at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory for a summer research project. There he studied prehistoric glaciers and was introduced to the study of global snow cover, using satellite imagery, which helped to define the research passion that he has maintained ever since.

At Rutgers, Robinson says the large research-university atmosphere hasn’t kept his department from having a strong liberal-arts focus.

“Geographers are the ones who bridge the human and physical dimensions of environmental issues,” he says. “It’s not just equations and laws and processes—a geographer looks at the physical damage and turns immediately to the human aspect.

Hurricane Katrina, for example, “is a living lab for geographers,” he says.

These days it seems like scientists of all persuasions—and politicians, too—are keeping tabs on the biggest hot-button climatology question: is global warming real?

“Yes,” he says, flatly. “Ten years ago, I was more skeptical. But warming cannot fully be explained by natural causes … volcanic and solar activity, etc. Despite the vocal naysayers, many of whom I count as friends and colleagues, most climatologists agree that warming is real, and humans are part of the cause.

“More important in my mind,” he adds, “is what climate change does to the earth’s water budget: drought, rainfall, flood, freshwater dimensions—are we more prone to extremes? We have about a century of records, and we need more. But we’ll know more soon. We’ll know more even before I retire.”

Robinson acknowledges that global warming is still something of a partisan issue. He says he’s a moderate who does his best to speak carefully and responsibly.

“I never realized when I became a scientist that I’d also have to be a political scientist. But it’s a great ride. I’m never bored.”


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