Should We Talk About the Weather?
It may not be as divisive a question as “is it pork roll or Taylor ham? And it may not be as unanswerable a question as “Is there really a Jersey Devil?”
But the existence of a symbolic protective weather bubble around Cape May has been the subject of increasing conversations over the years. Locals and tourists have seen storms suddenly fizzle or make a turn around the Cape, or sunny skies light up what was forecast to be a cloudy day.
The hashtag #CapeMayBubble isn’t presently trending on twitter—or X as it is now called. At least not yet. But there does seem to be something in the salty air on the Cape, something about the weather that adds to the allure and the charm of the boardwalks, lighthouses, and Victorian homes at the southern tip of New Jersey we proudly call home. But are those somethings explained by luck, coincidence, science, or perhaps some combination therein? There’s no denying that Cape May weather is, in a word, different.
As the crow flies, Cape May is technically closer to Washington, DC (115 miles almost due west) than it is to New York City (132 miles to the northeast). More importantly, from a weather perspective, Cape May is roughly at the same latitude as Washington, or 38 degrees 56 minutes north to be specific. That deceptively far south position, at least compared to the rest of the state, supports the idea of a “milder” bubble of sorts. After all, it’s a simple rule of thumb that it warms up the farther south you travel.
But Cape May’s southernmost position compared to the rest of New Jersey is just the “tip of the iceberg,” or just the “start of the Parkway” if you prefer an attempt at a more local idiom. Perhaps the most substantial factor that helps to prop up the perception of the Cape May bubble is in the name itself, the word “cape.”
To be precise, Cape May County as a whole is more of a peninsula, a narrowing tract of land surrounded on three sides by water, with the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean to the east and south, and the waters of Delaware Bay lapping the county’s coast to the west. With water on all but one side, you can bet that all that saltwater plays an oversized role in Cape May’s climate.
And if you did make that bet, you’d be right. Winds off the Atlantic Ocean, the Delaware Bay, and even to a lesser degree the Chesapeake Bay, about 60-70 miles to our west, have an enormous influence on our weather. Winds off a relatively warmer ocean in the winter can help moderate our winters, easing the severity of arctic blasts and turning a raging snow and ice storm to some less impactful plain rain. Flip the calendar to summer, and those same winds, off a relatively cooler ocean in this instance, can provide instant relief from sweltering summer heat farther inland. Sea and bay breezes have been known to stop many an ominous and potentially destructive thunderstorm right in its tracks, as storms fizzle upon interacting with these winds and the cooler and more stable ocean air they usually supply.
But why is there wind at all? It all starts with the different physical characteristics of land and water, or more specifically, how the two handle the incoming heat from the sun. Compared to land, water has a higher “specific heat capacity.” Don’t let the technical term throw you off, as the takeaway is quite simple. Water warms up much slower than the land in the summer and cools noticeably slower in the winter. That’s why our ocean temperatures only range from around 32 to 82 degrees most years, while temperatures on land can plummet below zero in the winter and surge into the triple digits in the summer on occasion. Land absorbs and loses heat fast, and water does not.
That simple difference between land and water is why we have sea breezes, off both the ocean and the bays, and land breezes as well. Winds off the Atlantic can collide with winds off the Delaware Bay, which in turn can interact with a Chesapeake Bay breeze. And let’s not forget about the more universal “synoptic” winds that everybody sees, the kind that flows around areas of high and low pressure. Throw more winds and collisions into the mix, and it further adds to the Cape May weather mystique.
So, is the Cape May “bubble” real? Well, it depends on how you define the word “bubble.”
With respect to our weather, it usually refers to an invisible and imagined protective barrier around Cape May County, one that protects us from otherwise inclement or hazardous weather. And if that’s your definition of choice, then the bubble can be real, at least some of the time. For instance:
-Thunderstorms: Severe storms that fire up thanks to abundant heat and humidity farther inland often weaken as they work their way towards the coast. That is often even more true in Cape May, where multiple and competing bay and ocean breezes and the cooler and more stable air they bring forth combine to cause storms to fizzle, sometimes rather dramatically.
-Winter storms: While the rest of New Jersey is either buried in snow or caked in sleet and ice, the warming influences of the surrounding bodies of water can give the Cape a plain rainstorm. Sure, the rain makes it through our protective bubble, but the winter weather and all its woes do not.
-A sunny solace: Under certain conditions, land masses can produce extensive clouds, while the skies over the water are remarkably clear, especially in the spring and fall. With water on three sides, there are at least several days each year when the Garden State as a whole is shrouded in an obstinate overcast, while Cape May sticks out into surrounding water and soaks up some opportune sunshine.
Of course, there’s more than one definition of the word “bubble” in the dictionary, and one of the definitions states the following: “used to refer to a good or fortunate situation that is isolated from reality and unlikely to last.”
It’s certainly true that our Cape May climate is normally a provider of good and fortunate day-to-day weather, and we’re all quite thankful for the meteorological good fortune we are usually blessed with. However, not to burst the bubble of believers, but the above definition may be the more fitting description of our weather in Cape May. Our immunity may last for extensive stretches, but it’s certainly not infinite.
Due to a complex interaction of geography and meteorology, our weather is more than anything else unique, especially when compared to the rest of the Garden State. We’re certainly not immune to all adverse weather, as tornadoes, hurricanes, nor’easters, and severe thunderstorms have all battered the area and scarred our beloved peninsula over the years—in fact all the above within the last 11 years. Not only are the big-ticket weather phenomena always a possibility, but things can also occasionally work in reverse, and Cape May is in the midst of a storm, while everyone north of the Tuckahoe River is on the outside looking in.
That’s true in winter storms, a true “South Jersey special” as some say, the kind that drops 6-12 inches of snow on the lower Cape, with nothing but flurries north of Great Egg Harbor. And it can also ring true during summer and severe weather season. While cooler and more stable ocean air has killed many an intense thunderstorm bound for the Cape over the years, there are times when raucous storms barrel across the peninsula, while the rest of the state sees only flashes of lightning on the southern horizon.
So perhaps it’s not a bubble, at least not one that offers everlasting protection from Mother Nature’s wrath. Sure, the bubble sounds the most intriguing, and has a certain aura to it. But is there another word that would be more fitting? How about the Cape May anomaly? Aberration? For alliteration, the Cape May contradiction?
More than anything else, the weather on our beloved peninsula is distinct. It’s distinct from other areas along the Jersey shore. It’s distinct from the state as a whole. It’s even distinct from the weather throughout the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. And it’s the unique flavor of Cape weather that adds more charm and curiosity to the city, the county, and our daily forecast. The fickle weather can be frustrating and humbling to forecast at times and can provide some fittingly unique forecasting lessons for meteorologists. Here are a few examples:
Delaware Bay-effect snow: We’ve all heard about lake-effect snow in the winter, as intense snow bands set up downwind of the Great Lakes as cold air from Canada crosses the relatively warmer waters of the Lakes. The result: feet upon feet of snow. As it turns out, there’s something less well known, less intense, and less common on the Lower Cape, known as Delaware Bay effect snow. The only place around you’ll find it is Lower Cape May County, normally south of Exit 10 on the Parkway. It’s rather rare, rather light, and certainly not as impactful as its more notorious cousin up in the Great Lakes. But it can whiten the ground on the lower Cape, bringing a dusting to an inch or two on the rare occasions it falls. It’s not the 96 inches a good Buffalo Lake effect snowstorm can produce. But it’s something, and it’s all ours.
A Cape May beach day: There’s another unique set up, usually in the spring or early summer, that happens a few times a year. It’s a warm and sunny day early in the season, so the ocean is still rather chilly, let’s say near 60 degrees. But the land heats up quickly and effectively, and temperatures on the sand up and down the Jersey shore surge into the 80s. At this point, we cue the sea breeze, which develops and sends cool ocean air onshore and flooding the barrier islands. Temperatures drop from 85 to 65 degrees, and those who were soaking up the warm sun are now seeking the warmth of their towel as they cover up. The cool air is an unwanted spoiler of an otherwise nice beach day. But not from Ocean City to Cape—just from Absecon Island and Atlantic City north to Sandy Hook. It’s a quirky meteorological setup, but north-northwest winds around 10-12 miles-per-hour are lightly blowing from the New Jersey mainland down to the shore and down the Cape, not strong enough to hold off the sea-breeze, which inevitably comes ashore. However, those north-northwest winds funnel down the Cape May peninsula, picking up a few extra miles-per-hour in the process, and in turn, 15-17 miles-per-hour breezes are just enough to stop the cooler ocean air from moving ashore. The result: beaches from Ocean City on south are warm and dry with a light land breeze, delighted crowds, and summery 80-something-degree warmth to enjoy. Beaches that point north are cool and brisk, likely much more deserted with people left out in the cool.
So, it may not provide a lifelong meteorological immunity from adverse weather. And it isn’t guaranteed to be the least inclement option in the state, although more often than not that’s probably the case. But it’s safe to say that Cape May weather is always distinctive, and a bit non-conformist. There’s that old saying that says if you don’t like the weather in this part of the country, wait a few minutes and it will inevitably change. Maybe we could amend that to be “if you don’t like the weather, just drive north off the Cape and off the peninsula, and it may change dramatically.”