• Real-World Geography: Dr. Randall Cerveny
    Randy Cerveny is a climatologist and geographer.

    Photograph by Kimberly Dumke

    By Kimberly Dumke

    Friday, January 21, 2011


    Randy grew up in Nebraska, where weather was a part of his day-to-day life. His family’s home was on a hill, where they would constantly watch the weather. Even local officials would go to the hill to watch for and monitor storms in order to issue warnings to the public.

    While Randy was always fascinated by weather, he never thought he could do any work in that field. When he started college at the University of Nebraska, he first studied electrical engineering. However, he soon realized he did not like that type of work. He asked his brother, who was then an admissions counselor at the school, what department worked with weather and found out it was geography.

    In Weather’s Greatest Mysteries Solved!, Randy says he first thought of geography as learning the names and capitals of places. “I quickly discovered that geography is, literally, the mother of most disciplines, the basis of everything from anthropology to zoology.”

    One of Randy’s early jobs was working for the U.S. government on a project to transport missiles on trains to the western United States. There, the missiles would be stored in caves where they would be hidden from view, specifically from the Soviet Union. His work included assessing potential weather issues that might affect the railways and storage locations.


    Randy enjoys learning and discovering new aspects of geography and weather. Climatologists and meteorologists, people who study weather, “are studying things no one else has looked at,” he says. “The field is incredibly new and constantly changing. For example, just recently, three new types of lightning were discovered.”


    “The newness and changing nature of the field, which are the most fun aspects of this work, are also the most challenging. There are often not definitive answers, or answers change when new information is discovered.  That can be frustrating to people who want absolutes.”


    “The study of everything on this planet and how it interacts with us. Sometimes it even goes below the surface of the Earth and above our atmosphere.

    “The critical thing is that what is learned in one location is applicable to a wide variety of places. For example, what we learn about the deserts of Arizona may be valid for parts of Africa or India.”


    Randy began working at Arizona State University in 1986. In recognition of his contributions to undergraduate education, he was awarded the title President’s Professor in 2005. Subjects he teaches include physical geography, climate change, and meteorology.

    Randy’s first book, Freaks of the Storm: From Flying Cows to Stealing Thunder: The World's Strangest True Weather Stories, was published in 2006. Also that year, the United NationsWorld Meteorological Organization Commission for Climatology agreed to create an archive for verifying, certifying, and storing world weather extremes. Randy is responsible for researching and verifying global weather records for the commission. Weather’s Greatest Mysteries Solved! was published in 2009.

    Randy is working on increasing the number of weather stations throughout Arizona. He also wants to see more stations in the U.S. that record data in the upper atmosphere. More data means better forecasts, Randy says, which will help people prepare for natural disasters or even just a typical storm.


    Randy says coursework must be on math and physics. “And the sooner, the better—even at the junior high school level,” he says. “You need to understand the science of weather and have knowledge of the principles. Studying cartography is also important.” Cartography is the practice of making maps.

    Finally, a climatologist needs good writing skills. “While you need to have strong specialized knowledge and skills to forecast, you need to be able to share the information with people in a way that is not overly technical so they can easily understand.”

    According to Randy, both meteorology, which looks at day-to-day weather, and climatology, which looks at long-term weather patterns, require the same core classes. Typically, a bachelor’s degree is sufficient for a career in meteorology. Job examples include working for the National Weather Service as a forecaster or the U.S. military as a weather officer.

    Climatologists need advanced degrees. Job examples include working for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. Forest Service, or the National Hurricane Center.

    In the private sector, you could work for an insurance company as a forensic meteorologist, who is like a storm detective and investigates causes of damage. Or you could be an energy trader, a job having to do with the financial markets, which Randy thinks would be the most stressful job because it involves millions of dollars.

    Randy says very few schools offer degrees in climatology. Only the University of Delaware has a PhD program in the field. He hopes this will change because he has seen interest in the field increase.


    Randy says the more weather people can experience, the better. Traveling to different places offers the opportunity to do that. He says the most interesting place he has been is Antarctica. In the mid-1980s, he was a participant in the National Science Foundation Antarctic Research Program with the Polar Ice Coring Office. “Not many people get to go there,” he says.

    He also suggests watching specials and films about weather, as well as reading magazines, such as Weatherwise, Science, and National Geographic.

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    absolute Noun

    something that is complete, certain and reliable.

    admissions counselor Noun

    person who helps to recruit future college students.

    affect Verb

    to produce a change.

    anthropology Noun

    science of the origin, development, and culture of human beings.

    Encyclopedic Entry: anthropology
    assess Verb

    to evaluate or determine the amount of.

    atmosphere Noun

    layers of gases surrounding a planet or other celestial body.

    Encyclopedic Entry: atmosphere
    capital Noun

    city where a region's government is located.

    Encyclopedic Entry: capital
    cartography Noun

    art and science of making maps.

    cave Noun

    underground chamber that opens to the surface. Cave entrances can be on land or in water.

    certify Verb

    to confirm or guarantee.

    climate change Noun

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

    Encyclopedic Entry: climate change
    climatologist Noun

    person who studies long-term patterns in weather.

    constantly Adverb


    coursework Noun

    homework and contribution required by a class.

    critical Adjective

    very important.

    data Plural Noun

    (singular: datum) information collected during a scientific study.

    definitive Adjective

    complete and final.

    desert Noun

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

    Encyclopedic Entry: desert
    Earth Noun

    our planet, the third from the Sun. The Earth is the only place in the known universe that supports life.

    Encyclopedic Entry: Earth
    electrical engineer Noun

    person who analyzes, designs, and constructs systems to conduct electricity.

    energy trader Noun

    person who buys and sells units of electricity, usually for a public or private energy company.

    Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Noun

    U.S. government organization whose mission is to "protect human health and the environment."

    fascinate Verb

    to cause an interest in.

    financial Adjective

    having to do with money.

    forecast Verb

    to predict, especially the weather.

    forensic meteorologist Noun

    person who investigates how weather caused damage to property.

    geography Noun

    study of places and the relationships between people and their environments.

    Encyclopedic Entry: geography
    government Noun

    system or order of a nation, state, or other political unit.

    hill Noun

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

    Encyclopedic Entry: hill
    ice core Noun

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

    insurance company Noun

    business that, for a regular fee, provides economic compensation for lost or damaged property.

    issue Verb

    to distribute, give away, or sell.

    lightning Noun

    sudden electrical discharge from clouds.

    Encyclopedic Entry: lightning
    literally Adverb

    exactly what is said, without exaggeration.

    math Noun

    (mathematics) study of the relationship and measurements of quantities using numbers and symbols.

    meteorologist Noun

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

    monitor Verb

    to observe and record behavior or data.

    National Hurricane Center Noun

    branch of the National Weather Service responsible for tracking and predicting tropical storms.

    National Weather Service Noun

    branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) whose mission is to provide "weather, hydrologic, and climate forecasts and warnings for the United States, its territories, adjacent waters and ocean areas, for the protection of life and property and the enhancement of the national economy."

    natural disaster Noun

    an event occurring naturally that has large-scale effects on the environment and people, such as a volcano, earthquake, or hurricane.

    PhD Noun

    (doctor of philosophy) highest degree offered by most graduate schools.

    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.

    potential Noun


    private sector Noun

    section of the economy that works for profit, such as corporations (not government or nonprofit organizations).

    public Adjective

    available to an entire community, not limited to paying members.

    railway Noun

    stretch of railroad between two points.

    rapporteur Noun

    person who gathers and organizes facts to present to an authority or government body.

    specific Adjective

    exact or precise.

    storage Noun

    space for keeping materials for use at a later time.

    storm Noun

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

    transport Verb

    to move material from one place to another.

    undergrad Noun

    undergraduate. college student who has not graduated, as oppossed to a graduate student pursuing a master's or doctoral degree.

    United Nations Noun

    international organization that works for peace, security and cooperation.

    U.S. Forest Service Noun

    part of the Department of Agriculture responsible for national forests and national grasslands.

    verify Verb

    to prove as true.

    weather Noun

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

    Encyclopedic Entry: weather
    weather station Noun

    area with tools and equipment for measuring changes in the atmosphere.

    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.

    zoology Noun

    the study of animals.

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