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A climatologist explains what's causing this winter's erratic weather

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The month of January has had weather that's been unexpected and varied - warmth in the Northeast, torrential rain in the West, more than a hundred tornadoes and relatively little snow. We're joined now by New Jersey state climatologist David Robinson, who's also a distinguished professor at Rutgers. Professor, thanks so much for being with us.

DAVID ROBINSON: My pleasure. Thanks.

SIMON: So how did January strike you?

ROBINSON: Unusual - I would say March-like here in the mid-Atlantic states. Our temperatures were record warm and more closely aligned here in New Jersey to what we normally find in March. Or if you want to play a geographic game, it was more like a normal January in Charlotte, N.C.

SIMON: And no snow in New Jersey, as I understand it, until February 1.

ROBINSON: Yeah, very little snow. The northern hills had some snow. But here in central New Jersey, we had our first measurable snow of the season, just two-tenths of an inch, on the first of February. And that was the latest we've gone - with records back to 1893, it's the latest we've gone in the season without measuring some snow that falls.

SIMON: How do you explain, Professor Robinson, how New Jersey gets no snow and Buffalo 100 inches?

ROBINSON: Yeah, and even more unusual, Syracuse has well below normal snow, and they normally average more than Buffalo. That was a very specific situation where the winds - some cold winds in January and in December came roaring up Lake Erie and gobbled up a lot of moisture off the lake and just pinpointed it on the Buffalo area. So it was a very localized event. But, wow, it was just a tragic and dramatic event.

SIMON: I gather this is the third year in a row in which we've had a La Nina weather pattern, right?

ROBINSON: Yeah, it's an unusual triple La Nina where the sea surface temperatures in the Eastern Pacific are colder than normal and a little milder in the West. It's not all that usual to have three in a row.

SIMON: And the atmospheric rivers dropped - what? - trillions of gallons of rain on California.

ROBINSON: It was just one storm after the next, came in off the Pacific Ocean and had - that hose was aimed at some part of the California coastline and up into the Sierra Nevadas, where they had incredible amounts of snow.

SIMON: Is that driven by La Nina, too?

ROBINSON: Actually, it's a little unusual for a La Nina. La Nina years typically have more precipitation up in the Pacific Northwest and less as you go down the West Coast of the U.S. El Nino events tend to be wetter in the southern part of the West Coast and drier in the north. So that's the one part of the country that didn't exactly follow the rules, if you will.

SIMON: Is this climate change?

ROBINSON: This is weather. Every weather event is situated on a higher foundation, if you will, of warmer conditions. So the warm is a little warmer. The cold is a little warmer. But on a day to day, even a month by month basis, it's general weather patterns. You can't just look at one season, one month, let alone one week and attribute it to climate change.

SIMON: Well, I think the question in a lot of minds is have what we traditionally think of as the seasons changed?

ROBINSON: They certainly have in some parts of the world. In some areas, you're having your snow cover melt out earlier in the spring, and that leads to warmer springs, drier springs and summers, can increase fire danger in high latitudes and even high altitudes. Meanwhile, in the fall, it's a very mixed picture. We've got a lot of more open water in the Arctic, and that's changing circulation patterns. In some cases, it's driving a little early season snow into the Northern high latitudes. So sounds counterintuitive, but it makes physical sense.

SIMON: David Robinson is a New Jersey state climatologist and distinguished professor at Rutgers University. Thanks so much for being with us, and sunny skies ahead.

ROBINSON: My pleasure. Same to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.