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90 Years Later, Death Valley Sets World Temp Record

The searing heat waves that blanketed the nation earlier this summer sent temperatures soaring well above 110°F in parts of the U.S., but that’s nowhere close to the hottest temperature on record — an almost unimaginable 136.4° F, taken on September 13, 1922, in the Sahara Desert at El Azizia, Libya. That’s what the Guinness Book of World Records says, and if you don’t trust a source that feels the need to document the world’s fastest toilet or the world’s largest collection of traffic cones, it’s what the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) says as well.

Or that’s what they said until now. But after an intensive investigation by a group of forensic meteorologists, the WMO has officially declared the Libyan record as dead as Lance Armstrong’s seven Tour de France titles. The former runnerup — a July 10, 1913 reading of 134°F at the inaptly named Greenland Ranch, in Death Valley, Calif., — is now the official champ.

Death Valley, California.
Credit: Xavier de Jauréguiberry/flickr

Among weather fanatics, the Libyan record had always seemed a bit dubious. Christopher Burt, for example, a weather historian at the Weather Underground blog, wrote in 2010 that “This figure has been controversial since it first appeared in publications of climate data . . . and reprinted in the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society, 1924.”

El Azizia is suspiciously too close to the moderating influence of the Mediterranean Sea to reach that kind of temperature, critics said, and other nearby weather stations had readings more than 18° cooler on that same day.

That’s just one link in the chain of damning evidence. The WMO investigators, hailing from nine countries, including Libya, Italy and the U.S., also cited a thermometer that was already considered obsolete in 1922, an inexperienced observer, and temperatures before and after that fateful day were much lower — and matched readings at nearby stations much more closely.

“When we compared [the] observations to surrounding areas and to other measurements made before and after the 1922 reading, they simply didn't match up," Arizona State University meteorlogist Randy Cerveny said in a press release. Ceverny is also the official Rapporteur of Climate and Weather Extremes for the WMO.

The investigation began in 2010, but it was interrupted by the Libyan revolution. According to the WMO, Libyan meteorologist Khalid El Fadli, an official of the Gaddafi regime, had to drop out of sight for eight months for his own safety. After the violence was over, he joined the new government and the investigation resumed. It eventually concluded in time for the new champ to be announced 90 years to the day after the bogus record was ostensibly made.

This reshuffling of records doesn’t mean a lot in terms of climate science: even in a warming world, the mercury isn’t likely to hit 134° again any time soon. Nevertheless, global warming is making extreme heat waves more common, and new temperature records are being set at an ominous rate. The Death Valley record may be absurdly higher than normal. But the definition of “normal” seems to be ratcheting upward all the time.

EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this story contained a photo of Death Valley that did not, in fact, depict that location. The error has been corrected. Thank you to all who tweeted us for catching that!

Related Coverage:
Hansen Study: Extreme Weather Tied to Climate Change
Updated Statistics Show the “Normal” U.S. Climate is Getting Warmer
2012 Temperatures: Which States Led the Nation


By John Hodge (Grand Junction, Colorado, 81501)
on September 13th, 2012

I hate to be one of those “persnickety” people (okay, maybe a little), but that image sure doesn’t look like Death Valley. Instead, that appears to be somewhere in the San Rafael area of southern Utah. The whitish sandstone looks to be Navajo Sandstone, below it (stratigraphically higher) looks to be the Carmel Formation, and above that, at ground level, appear to be the Entrada Sandstone. I’ve only been to Death Valley a couple times, but I sure don’t remember it looking like this.

In fact, if you go to the image source the description reads: “A unknown location in the southwestern USA, stated to be Death Valley, but Death Valley does not have these kinds of sandstone formations - the scenery seems more typical of southern Utah”. So I’m not the only one.

I just wouldn’t want anyone going to Death Valley expecting scenery like this.

Oh, and yea, I’m a geol

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By Rodger Smith (Boothwyn, PA 19060)
on September 14th, 2012

Are you so sure Lance Armstrong’s record is incorrect?

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By Rodger Smith (Boothwyn, PA 19060)
on September 14th, 2012

I should have added: your Lance Armstrong comment does not do justice to the fairness expressed for other peoples opinions/beliefs you express in your book: Global Weirdness.  I happen to appreciate your book and am sharing it with several disbelievers in hopes they will rethink their opinions/beliefs about climate change.

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By mlemonick
on September 17th, 2012

Mr. Smith is absolutely right, and I thank him for his comment. Calling Armstrong’s titles “bogus” implies that I know the truth about whether he indulged in doping; all we know is that he is no longer contesting that claim. This doesn’t mean he has admitted guilt, and I have special insight that proves otherwise. I’ve reworded the piece to call his titles “dead” rather than bogus—which, since he is no longer contesting the charges, they objectively are.

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