The Climate of New Jersey
New Jersey is located about halfway between the Equator and the North Pole, on the eastern coast of the United States. Its geographic location results in the State being influenced by wet, dry, hot, and cold airstreams, making for daily weather that is highly variable.
The Garden State is 166 miles long from north to south, and its greatest width is about 65 miles. While this may not seem too large, there is a marked difference in climate between Cape May in the south and the Kittatinny Mountains of northwestern New Jersey.
The dominant feature of the atmospheric circulation over North America, including New Jersey, is the broad, undulating flow from west to east across the middle latitudes of the continent. These "prevailing westerlies" shift north and south and vary in strength during the course of the year, exerting a major influence on the weather throughout the State.
Some general observations about the temperature and precipitation in New Jersey include:
1) Temperature differences between the northern and southern parts of the state are greatest in the winter and least in summer. All stations have registered readings of 100 degrees F or higher and have records of 0 degrees F or below.
2) Average number of freeze free days in the northern highlands is 163, 179 in the central and southern interior, and 217 along the seacoast.
3) Average annual precipitation ranges from about 40 inches along the southeast coast to 51 inches in north-central parts of the state. Many areas average between 43 and 47 inches.
4) Snow may fall from about October 15 to April 30 in the highlands and from about November 15 to April 15 in southern counties.
5) Most areas receive 25 to 30 thunderstorms per year, with fewer storms near the coast than farther inland. Approximately five tornadoes occur each year, and in general, they tend to be weak.
6) Measurable precipitation falls on approximately 120 days. Fall months are usually the driest with an average of eight days with measurable precipitation. Other seasons average between 9 and 12 days per month with measurable precipitation.
Although New Jersey is one of the smallest states in the Union, with a land area of 7,836 square miles, it has five distinct climate regions. The geology, distance from the Atlantic Ocean, and prevailing atmospheric flow patterns produce distinct variations in the daily weather between each of the regions. The five regions, Northern, Central, Pine Barrens, Southwest, and Coastal, are described below and shown in the accompanying figure.
The Northern climate zone covers about one-quarter of New Jersey and consists mainly of elevated highlands and valleys which are part of the Appalachian Uplands. Surrounded by land, this region can be characterized as having a continental type of climate with minimal influence from the Atlantic Ocean, except when the winds contain an easterly component. Prevailing winds are from the southwest in summer and from the northwest in winter.
Being in the northernmost portion of the state, and with small mountains up to 1800 feet in elevation, the Northern Zone normally exhibits a colder temperature regime than other climate regions of the State. This difference is most dramatic in winter when average temperatures in the Northern Zone can be more than ten degrees Fahrenheit cooler than in the Coastal Zone. Annual snowfall averages 40 to 50 inches in the northern zone as compared with an average of 10-15 inches in the extreme south.
A storm track extending from the heart of the Mississippi Valley, over the Great Lakes, and along the St. Lawrence Valley is a major source of precipitation for this region. Coastal storms, with precipitation shields that reach well enough inland add to the precipitation totals.
The highlands and mountains in this area play a role in making the climate of the Northern Zone different from the rest of the state. Clouds and precipitation are enhanced by orographic effects. For instance, following a cold frontal passage, air forced to rise over the mountains, produces clouds, and even precipitation, while the rest of the state observes clear skies. The latter is due in part to subsiding air flowing off the highlands.
During the warm season, thunderstorms are responsible for most of the rainfall. Cyclones and frontal passages are less frequent during this time. Thunderstorms spawned in Pennsylvania and New York State often move into Northern New Jersey, where they often reach maximum development in the evening. This region has about twice as many thunderstorms as the coastal zone, where the nearby ocean helps stabilize the atmosphere.
The Northern Climate Zone usually has the shortest growing season, about 155 days. The average date for the last killing Spring frost is May 4. The first frost in Fall is around October 7. The exact dates vary significantly within the region as well as from year to year. Some valley locations have observed killing frost in mid-September and as late as mid-June.
The Central Zone has a northeast to southwest orientation, running from New York Harbor and the Lower Hudson River to the great bend of the Delaware River in the vicinity of Trenton. This region has many urban locations with large amounts of pollutants produced by the high volume of automobile traffic and industrial processes. The concentration of buildings and paved surfaces serve to retain more heat, thereby affecting the local temperatures. Because of the asphalt, brick, and concrete, the observed nighttime temperatures in heavily developed parts of the zone are regularly warmer than surrounding suburban and rural areas. This phenomenon is often referred to as a "heat island".
The northern edge of the Central Zone is often the boundary between freezing and non-freezing precipitation during wintertime. In summer, the northern reaches often mark the boundary between comfortable and uncomfortable sleeping conditions. Areas to the south of the Central Zone tend to have nearly twice as many days with temperatures above 90 degrees F than the 15-20 commonly observed in the central portion of the state.
Pine Barrens Zone
Scrub pine and oak forests dominate the interior southern portion of New Jersey, hence the name, Pine Barrens. Sandy soils, which are porous and not very fertile, have a major effect on the climate of this region. On clear nights, solar radiation absorbed during the day is quickly radiated back into space, resulting in surprisingly low minimum temperatures. Atlantic City Airport, which is surrounded by sandy soil, can be 15-20 degrees cooler than the Atlantic City Marina on the bay, which is only about thirteen miles away.
The porous soil permits any precipitation to rapidly infiltrate and leave surfaces quite dry. Drier conditions allow for a wider range between the daily maximum and minimum temperatures, and makes the area vulnerable to forest fires.
The Southwest Zone lies between sea level and approximately 100 feet above sea level. The close proximity to Delaware Bay adds a maritime influence to the climate of this region. The Southwest has the highest average daily temperatures in the state and without sandy soils, tends to have higher nighttime minimum temperatures than in the neighboring Pine Barrens.
This region receives less precipitation than the Northern and Central regions of the state as there are no orographic features and, it is farther away from the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence storm track. It is also far enough inland to be away from the heavier rains from some coastal storms, thus it receives less precipitation than the Coastal Zone.
Prevailing winds are from the southwest, except in winter when west to northwest winds dominate. High humidity and moderate temperatures prevail when winds flow from the south or east. The moderating effect of the water also allows for a longer growing season. Autumn frosts usually occur about four weeks later here than in the North and the last spring frosts are about four weeks earlier, giving this region the longest growing season in New Jersey.
In the Coastal Zone, continental and oceanic influences battle for dominance on daily to weekly bases. In autumn and early winter, when the ocean is warmer than the land surface, the Coastal Zone will experience warmer temperatures than interior regions of the state. In the spring months, ocean breezes keep temperatures along the coast cooler. Being adjacent to the Atlantic Ocean, with its high heat capacity (compared to land), seasonal temperature fluctuations tend to be more gradual and less prone to extremes.
Sea breezes play a major role in the coastal climate. When the land is warmed by the sun, heated air rises, allowing cooler air at the ocean surface to spread inland. Sea breezes often penetrate 5-10 miles inland, but under more favorable conditions, can affect locations 25-40 miles inland. They are most common in spring and summer.
Coastal storms, often characterized as nor'easters, are most frequent between October and April. These storms track over the coastal plain or up to several hundred miles offshore, bringing strong winds and heavy rains. Rarely does a winter go by without at least one significant coastal storm and some years see upwards of five to ten. Tropical storms and hurricanes are also a special concern along the coast. In some years, they contribute a significant amount to the precipitation totals of the region. Damage during times of high tide can be severe when tropical storms or nor'easters affect the region.
Acknowledgments and Further Information
This narrative borrows liberally from David Ludlum's New Jersey Weather Book, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1983, and also includes information from Climate of New Jersey, by the National Climatic Center, Asheville, North Carolina, June 1982. Each of these sources, plus our list of NJ Climate Publications, provide a considerable amount of information on New Jersey's climate. For more data see the NJ Climate Data Page.