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Tracking the extremes in weather — in an age when we’re breaking records all the time

Randy Cerveny is not just a climate professor at Arizona State University. He’s the world’s weatherman. Literally. His official title is the World Meteorological Organization’s Rapporteur of Weather and Climate Extremes.

In his new book, "Judging Extreme Weather," he really expands our knowledge of record-breaking weather events, in a time in which we are breaking records all the time.

Cerveny recently joined The Show to talk more about the book and how he got that prestigious title.

Full interview

RANDY CERVENY: When I proposed this idea all the way back in 2007 that we needed to have an official link of of what world records have occurred, the hottest temperature, the strongest winds, the deadliest hurricane, that type of thing. I proposed this idea. And they said, OK, this sounds like a really great idea. Why don't you run it? Well, you, you have to be careful what you ask for, I guess.

LAUREN GILGER: OK, so why extremes, what, first of all interests, you about this? And maybe, second of all, is important about this.

CERVENY: Well, extremes are really important because they, they provide a way to make a check on the validity of our records. When we talk about climate change, when we talk about temperatures and wind and rain and all of these different things, we have to make sure that what we measuring is actually what we think is being measured. That when we have a record high temperature, was the sensor actually carefully recording that exact temperature? We, we have to validate all of these extremes. It provides a great baseline so that when we see new records being set, when we see climate change occurring, we have something to compare with what we know is true.

GILGER: Yeah, and, and it sounds like we're making a lot of records right now, which we'll get into in a minute. So in this book, you're really kind of expanding the way we think about and our knowledge of these kinds of record breaking weather events. Why don't you just start by giving us a few of the ones that stand out to you? I mean, there are some really extreme kind of crazy things in this book, but tell us a few of your favorites.

CERVENY: Well, I mean, the probably the most famous one that we had started in 2010 where we did a re examination of what was then considered to be the hottest temperature on the planet. It was in a little town outside of Tripoli in Libya, and it was, dates back all the way to the 1920s. We carefully looked at that particular record we had uncovered, my contact in Libya had actually uncovered the actual raw observation, the handwritten observations that were taken at that time. We were able to determine that those were false, that the, the person that took those observations didn't know what they were doing. And so they were in doubt. We raised enough concerns about it that we decided that it was an invalid observation. And so now the official hottest temperature on the earth is 134 degrees that was recorded back in Death Valley back in 1913.

GILGER: So it changes the whole spectrum there when you think about it like that. Talk a little bit more about the history of documenting weather and, and how much it's changed.

CERVENY: Oh, it really is. Now, I, I hear a lot of critics of climate change saying, well, our documented records only go back about 150 years, which is true, but during that time, we have made some big, big advances, not only in that record in terms of how we measure precisely temperature and rainfall and this type of thing, but how we, we can talk about what temperatures or rainfall or what climate conditions existed before that time. We have what are called climate proxy records.

You're looking at things like tree rings or deep sea cores of at the bottom of the ocean. They can tell us very precise information about what the weather was like, not just our records of 150 years, but far back beyond that.

GILGER: So you mentioned there, one of your favorite examples there of, of the, the heat extreme you were able to disprove. What about some of the things that you were able to prove here? What are some of your highlights there?

CERVENY: Well, probably one of the more more exciting ones and, and one that we didn't even list in our original listing of, of world records, was lightning. And that's because since 2007, our understanding and our ability to monitor lightning has improved by orders of magnitude. We can now very precisely measure how long and how far an individual lightning flash occurs

GILGER: How? Is that just technology?

CERVENY: We actually have instruments that are on top of satellites now that can actually chart that very, very nicely. And we thought at the time back when I started the, the project ... the, the, the official definition of a lightning flash was that it lasted less than a second. With our technology now, we have a world record longest single lightning flash that lasted 17 seconds, one flash and it traveled all the way, well, basically 470 some odd miles. That would be like a one single lightning flash traveling from Phoenix all the way to Los Angeles flash.

GILGER: That's crazy. So, I mean, that brings me to a point I wanted to make here, which is that yes, sometimes this is just interesting and fun, but a lot of times this is really scary, like the weather can be very deadly.

CERVENY: Actually, one of the categories that we had is the number of people that have died due to specific kinds of weather events. It was something that I had seen lots of wild media reports about such and such being the worst hurricane of all time that we decided to go down and come up with official measurements of how deadly can weather be. So, for example, with hail, we found that over 230 people were killed in one single hailstorm all the way back in 1888, a nasty type of thing. And we've done that for other weather types as well.

GILGER: So then let's talk about how much this is changing. I mean, we talk a lot about climate change in the news, but it sounds like that's maybe playing into this conversation about extremes and how important it is to mark them, right? Because we're breaking them all the time. Is that right?

CERVENY: Right. When I started the project, I had thought that maybe every other year or so we would have an investigation of a new extreme now. Well, I have three current investigations of different kinds of weather going on right now. So, so there, there have been a lot more extremes than I had thought. And we're breaking extremes much more frequently than I thought, or probably anybody back in 2007 had ever thought. And so we're keeping very, very busy about this.

GILGER: Yeah. I mean, like there's all this talk of 100 year storm, 1,000 year storm. These are, that's real.

CERVENY: Those are real. And, and even here in, in, the Phoenix metropolitan area, we have had storms recently that have been of the once in 1,000 year type of magnitude, which is simply incredible.

GILGER: Wow. Yeah. OK. So you have said that one of the, the parts of this project, one of the points of this book is to give people faith actually, which I found interesting, because so much of the conversation about weather is about climate change and about people worrying about what the weather is going to do and what it's gonna look like and how we're going to survive in the future, right?

CERVENY: Right. And I think one of the key points that, that the book tries to make is one, measuring weather is, is pretty complex that depending on what we're measuring, whether it's temperature or wind or pressure or what have you. We have to use some pretty elaborate instrumentation. But if the public can have confidence that we are doing the job correctly, I think that makes that gives everybody a better sense of, oh, than when we're talking about things like climate change. We are right about what we're saying.

GILGER: That's an important point to make. So what do you hope people get out of this other than some really interesting weather events as they read this book?

CERVENY: Well, to me, particularly with the creation of the project over the last couple of decades, one of the, the things that has warmed my heart has been the fact that I've gotten a lot of emails from kids, but also from newly minted meteorologists, that have said, that have told me that they have gotten interested in part with weather and, and meteorology because they run across some of my weird statistics that some of our records that we list in the WMO web page of, of extreme weather are things that kind of caught their attention. You know, maybe being in weather would be a fun thing to do.

GILGER: So, you're inspiring the next generation.

CERVENY: I'm hoping so. I'm hoping so.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.