NewsSeptember 13, 2012

90 Years Later, Death Valley Sets World Temp Record

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Michael D. Lemonick

By Michael D. Lemonick

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!

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