Dr. Randall Cerveny has always had an interest in weather. Growing up in Nebraska, he enjoyed watching for storms and tornadoes from his family’s home, which was on a hill and offered wide views of the surrounding area.

Today, Cerveny is a world-renowned climatologist. He teaches physical geography, climate change, meteorology, and other subjects at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona. He researches and verifies global weather records for the United NationsWorld Meteorological Organization Commission for Climatology.

Cerveny also writes books about weather and climate. In 2006, he presented a collection of strange weather incidents in Freaks of the Storm (From Flying Cows to Stealing Thunder, The World's Strangest True Weather Stories). In his 2009 book, Weather’s Greatest Mysteries Solved!, he acts as a weather detective, trying to answer questions such as “Why did T. rex become extinct?” and “Why did the Mayan civilization disappear?”

Weather vs. Climate

Before investigating a weather mystery, one must understand the differences between weather and climate. Weather is the short-term state of the atmosphere. Aspects include temperature, humidity, cloud cover, precipitation, and wind. Climate, on the other hand, is the long-term systems of weather and other atmospheric conditions.

“At its core, climate may be defined as the ‘collections’ or ‘groups’ of different types of weather. . . . In short, ‘climate’ is the general and ‘weather’ is the specific,” according to Cerveny.

A meteorologist, a scientist who studies weather, might make a 10-day weather forecast. Meteorologists and meteorological reports often appear on television, radio, or in a newspaper.

A climatologist, on the other hand, might study statistics of weather conditions over many years to look for patterns. A climatologist might also investigate a phenomenon—such as hail or a dust storm—and its causes.

There is a lot of overlap in the study of meteorology and climatology. “In order to study the ‘general’ of climate, we first need to study the ‘specific’ of weather,” says Cerveny.

Compared with fields such as physics and chemistry, which have been studied for hundreds of years, meteorology and climatology are quite young.

“Many of the major advances in our knowledge of weather have only been made since the turn of the 20th century,” says Cerveny. As a result, “we don’t yet have a complete understanding of all the intricacies of weather and climate.”

Ideas about climatology and weather events often result in debate and even modification. “One of the best features of climate science is that it is constantly being updated,” says Cerveny. “What we believed yesterday may not be our viewpoint tomorrow. As new evidence becomes available, different interpretations of the event become possible.”

Investigative Tools

Climate and weather investigators use a variety of research methods. These include reviewing historical records, ice core analysis, palynology (pollen analysis), and dendrochronology (tree ring analysis).

Historical records include personal observations, official governmental reports, or even newspaper articles. Some historical records date back to early human culture. “We have records of sunspot observations, particularly those made in China, that extend back for 2,000 years or more,” says Cerveny.

Still, 2,000 years is not very long in the history of our 4.5 billion-year-old planet, so scientists must look elsewhere to investigate older events.

Ice core analysis provides the opportunity to determine past temperatures, precipitation, and even things like the eruption of volcanoes or the impact of meteorites.

In ice core analysis, scientists study layers of glacial ice. The layers at the bottom are the oldest. Over hundreds of thousands of years, volcanic ash, pollutants, pollen, and other chemicals in the atmosphere gathered into raindrops or fog. This precipitation fell onto snow that later became glaciers. This glacial ice is what is extracted and analyzed by scientists studying ice cores. The process is very labor-intensive and expensive, but it is essential to climatology because it provides information from an amazingly long time ago.

According to Cerveny, “Ice core scientists in both Greenland and Antarctica have actually drilled to the bedrock under those two landmasses—literally miles deep in the ice! That means, specifically for Antarctica, drilling over a mile into the ice (over 3,200 meters). The extracted ice core dated back 740,000 years and reveals as many as eight distinct glacial cycles!”

Palynology is another method to research climate events. “Pollen deposited into a lake can be one of the key indicators used to measure climate change,” Cerveny writes.

Just as ice core scientists drill to extract tubes of ice, palynologists drill into lake beds to extract sediment cores. These cores record vegetation changes over time. Sediment cores reveal what plants, algae, and other organisms were present during what period. This may indicate the temperature of the lake, or the amount of sunlight it received. Sediment cores allow scientists to determine environmental changes and the climate variations that may have caused them.

But digging into the ground isn’t the only way to dig into the past. In dendrochronology, cores are taken from trees, providing an above-ground approach for studying climate. The field was created by A. E. Douglass. “One of the first things that he noted was the timescale of tree rings is ‘absolute’; that is, individual years can be identified and, in fact, in some cases, individual seasons within a year can be precisely seen in the tree rings,” Cerveny says.

Tree-ring records can reveal if a period of time was very cold, wet, or exposed to certain chemicals, such as volcanic ash or air pollution. Rings closest to the center are the oldest. Today, living trees are not harmed by the coring procedure. The cylinders of wood that are extracted are only the width of a pencil, and trees quickly recover.

Suspects

In Weather’s Greatest Mysteries Solved!, Cerveny uses dendrochronology, palynology, ice cores, and historical records to examine climate mysteries of the past and present.

“Suspects” that caused the mysteries to occur vary widely and include an asteroid striking Earth and the eruption of a “supervolcano” in Indonesia. How can things like that influence our weather and climate? And what effect does it have on us? To find that out, you will need to read the book!

Meteorological Sleuth
Randy Cerveny, weather detective.

Meteorological Sleuth
Some of weathers greatest mysteries investigated by Randy Cerveny include:

  • The Mystery of the Dead T. Rex explores the possibility that a huge meteor crashed into the Earth, causing the death of the dinosaurs.
  • The Mystery of the Saharan Hippos investigates how fossils of river-dwelling hippopotamuses could be found in the middle of the Sahara Desert.
  • The Mystery of the Mayan Megadrought investigates the possibility that a drought led to the downfall of the powerful Mayan civilization.
A. E. Douglass
Noun

(18671962) American astronomer and dendrochronologist.

algae
Plural Noun

(singular: alga) diverse group of aquatic organisms, the largest of which are seaweeds.

analyze
Verb

to study in detail.

asteroid
Noun

irregularly shaped planetary body, ranging from 6 meters (20 feet) to 933 kilometers (580 miles) in diameter, orbiting the sun between Mars and Jupiter.

Noun

layers of gases surrounding a planet or other celestial body.

Noun

solid rock beneath the Earth's soil and sand.

chemistry
Noun

study of the atoms and molecules that make up different substances.

Noun

complex way of life that developed as humans began to develop urban settlements.

Noun

all weather conditions for a given location over a period of time.

Noun

gradual changes in all the interconnected weather elements on our planet.

climatologist
Noun

person who studies long-term patterns in weather.

cloud cover
Noun

amount of sky covered with clouds.

cylinder
Noun

tube or long, circular object.

dendrochronology
Noun

study of tree rings and how they can identify and date weather events and changes in the atmosphere.

Noun

area of land that receives no more than 25 centimeters (10 inches) of precipitation a year.

dinosaur
Noun

very large, extinct reptile chiefly from the Mesozoic Era, 251 million to 65 million years ago.

Noun

period of greatly reduced precipitation.

dust storm
Noun

weather pattern of wind blowing dust over large regions of land.

dwelling
Noun

a place to live.

essential
Adjective

needed.

expensive
Adjective

very costly.

extinct
Adjective

no longer existing.

extract
Verb

to pull out.

Noun

clouds at ground level.

forecast
Verb

to predict, especially the weather.

glacial cycle
Noun

long period of cold climate where glaciers may cover large parts of the Earth. Also called an Ice Age.

glacial ice
Noun

precipitation that has hardened on top of glaciers, forming another layer on the glacier.

Noun

mass of ice that moves slowly over land.

Noun

precipitation that falls as ice.

Noun

land that rises above its surroundings and has a rounded summit, usually less than 300 meters (1,000 feet).

hippopotamus
Noun

large mammal native to Africa that lives near rivers.

historical record
Noun

document written at the time an event happened, and later studied.

humid
Adjective

containing a large amount of water vapor.

ice core
Noun

sample of ice taken to demonstrate changes in climate over many years.

incident
Noun

event or happening.

interpretation
Noun

way of understanding an event or set of facts.

intricacies
Plural Noun

details.

labor-intensive
Adjective

requiring a lot of work and effort.

literally
Adverb

exactly what is said, without exaggeration.

Maya
Noun

people and culture native to southeastern Mexico and Central America.

Noun

rocky debris from space that enters Earth's atmosphere. Also called a shooting star or falling star.

Noun

type of rock that has crashed into Earth from outside the atmosphere.

meteorologist
Noun

person who studies patterns and changes in Earth's atmosphere.

Noun

study of weather and atmosphere.

observation
Noun

something that is learned from watching and measuring an object or pattern.

palynologist
Noun

person who studies pollen and its impact on the environment and organisms.

palynology
Noun

study of pollen.

phenomenon
Noun

an unusual act or occurrence.

physical geography
Noun

study of the natural features and processes of the Earth.

physics
Noun

study of the physical processes of the universe, especially the interaction of matter and energy.

plant
Noun

organism that produces its own food through photosynthesis and whose cells have walls.

pollen
Noun

powdery material produced by plants, each grain of which contains a male gamete capable of fertilizing a female ovule.

pollutant
Noun

chemical or other substance that harms a natural resource.

Noun

all forms in which water falls to Earth from the atmosphere.

raindrop
Noun

drop of liquid from the atmosphere.

sediment core
Noun

cylinder of accumulated sediment of a region, visible as layers.

sleuth
Noun

detective or investigator.

specific
Adjective

exact or precise.

statistics
Noun

the collection and analysis of sets of numbers.

storm
Noun

severe weather indicating a disturbed state of the atmosphere resulting from uplifted air.

sunspot
Noun

dark, cooler area on the surface of the sun that can move, change, and disappear over time.

supervolcano
Noun

volcano capable of ejecting more than 1,000 cubic kilometers (240 cubic miles) of material.

Noun

degree of hotness or coldness measured by a thermometer with a numerical scale.

tornado
Noun

a violently rotating column of air that forms at the bottom of a cloud and touches the ground.

tree ring
Noun

layered formation in the trunk of a tree that marks its growth at least once a year.

T. rex
Noun

(Tyrannosaurus rex) large carnivorous or scavenger dinosaur.

unique
Adjective

one of a kind.

United Nations
Noun

international organization that works for peace, security and cooperation.

vegetation
Noun

all the plant life of a specific place.

verify
Verb

to prove as true.

Noun

fragments of lava less than 2 millimeters across.

Noun

an opening in the Earth's crust, through which lava, ash, and gases erupt, and also the cone built by eruptions.

Noun

state of the atmosphere, including temperature, atmospheric pressure, wind, humidity, precipitation, and cloudiness.

wind
Noun

movement of air (from a high pressure zone to a low pressure zone) caused by the uneven heating of the Earth by the sun.

World Meteorological Organization
Noun

United Nations agency that studies the Earth's atmosphere, its interaction with the oceans, the climate, and the distribution of water resources.