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Sep 13 2012

Death Valley and Temperature Records

Death Valley, January 2005

Death Valley on a much cooler day in January 2005, with Pleistocene Lake Manly reemergent at Badwater.

I say more about this over at KCET, but I’ve found it kind of surprising that today’s barrage of coverage of the World Meteorological Organization’s official dethroning of the 1936 El Azizia, Libya temperature record didn’t mention this fascinating work that came out a few months back.

The short version of today’s news: a global group of meteorologists, including Libyan scientist, Khalid El Fadli, climate director of the Libyan National Meteorological Center, went over the old records that secured El Azizia’s spot in fifth-grade geography texts as the site of the world’s highest recorded temperature. That much-memorized datum, an air temperature peak of 136°F (or 58°C for those of you in civilized countries) 90 years ago today on September 13, 1922, turns out to have been an artifact of difficult-to-read equipment combined a newbie weather technician working at an Italian Army post. The peak actual temperature that day was likely 7°C cooler, putting it well within the range of normal hellishly hot for the neighborhood I just moved out of. That puts Death Valley’s July 10, 1913 reading of  134°F/56.7°C back in the first place spot it ought to have enjoyed for the last 90 years.

El Fadli, by the way, had to go underground for a bit during the revolution. His colleagues lauded him today for taking risks to get this study done, and we wouldn’t have had this info without his taking significant personal risks as Qaddafi’s regime went through its death throes.

The thing is that those official records have a bit of built-in sampling error: namely, they derive from the places where we’ve managed to maintain weather stations for long enough to keep records. The WMO has more than 11,000 weather stations worldwide, but “worldwide” is a big place, and that works out to an average of one weather station for every 13,000 square kilometers of land surface. Admittedly, much of the really underrepresented land surface is in Antarctica, where it’s unlikely any high air temperature records will be set anytime soon. But that’s still a lot of potentially hot land not being monitored, in the deserts of Asia, Africa, and even the Sonoran Desert in North America.

The research that made the press a few months back involved measuring Land Skin Temperature (LST), which I’d embarrassingly typoed as “Land Sin Temperature” at KCET until just now, via infrared satellite monitoring of the Earth’s surface by way of the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometers on two NASA satellites. The researchers, led by Steve Running of the University of Montana, found a number of places well away from the nearest WMO-approved weather station that had astonishingly high surface temperatures. The record? A dark and gravelly spot in Iran’s Lut Desert, where on one particularly warm day in 2005 the LST reached 159.3°F/70.7°C. The place on Earth with the second-hottest LST was an unspecified spot in the bush in Queensland, which will no doubt delight the Strines in the crowd. That temperature: 156.7°F/69.3°C. The Turpan Basin in Xinjiang, China took third place at 152.2°F /66.8°C.

Of course air temperature and LST are different animals. The WMO requires that air temperature measurement be taken 1.2-2 meters off the ground in the shade, which means comparing air temps and LST is kind of comparing apples with the sun-baked soil at the base of the apple tree. Think walking barefoot on the beach on a nice day with air temperatures in the 80s. Differences of 50°F between air temperature and LST aren’t unheard of. And until we plant a WMO-approved weather station out on the Lut Desert, we probably won’t have a good idea how those temperatures compare with Death Valley’s.

But we do know one thing: when Running’s team listed the places on Earth with the hottest Land Skin Temperatures, Death Valley didn’t make the list. So the hottest place on Earth, according to the news today, probably isn’t. It’s just the hottest one for which we have a recorded air temperature. Which doesn’t make as snappy a headline. But that’s okay: the California Desert still has that 767 straight days without rain at Bagdad, about 40 miles north of where I’me sitting right now. It’s at most in second place after the Atacama Desert, which has some places where rain’s never been recorded, ever. But we’re’ good at being in second place around here.

41 comments

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  1. 1
    thunk: turmite city

    You might also want to read Christopher Burt’s take about it (who, after being convinced by El Fadli, with the help of the rest of Wunderground, succeeded in getting the attention of the WMO)

    http://www.wunderground.com/blog/weatherhistorian/article.html?entrynum=89

    Also, the 134 F figure itself is moderately suspect; the highest confirmed temperature using modern equipment is 129 F, still at Death Valley.

  2. 2
    Chris Clarke

    Fantastic link, thunk. Thank you.

    This part was especially chilling:

    Just as this key discovery (the finding of the original log sheet) was made, the Libyan revolution broke out. On February 15, 2011, we received the last message from El Fadli prior to the revolution. Col. Gaddafi, the leader of Libya, had shut down Libyan international communications.

    Of course, without El Fadli’s critical input we could move no further with the investigation, and Randy called for a hiatus to further deliberations.

    In early March, Gaddafi began airing long nightly rambling tirades on his government TV network. During one of these, he made an ominous reference to how NATO forces were using Libyan climate data to plan their assault on the country. My heart sank when I heard this. I immediately thought that our colleague, El Fadli–as director of the LNMC–must have been implicated by Gaddafi as providing weather information to the “enemy”.

    I must say, at that point, I–and the rest of the committee–thought El Fadli was a dead man.

  3. 3
    Chris Clarke

    And here’s Burt on the Death Valley record.

    Edited to add:

    It would appear Death Valley, California holds the best authenticated value of 129°F and also the 2nd best ‘possibly authentic’ reading with the 134°F in 1913. I would propose that the hottest reliable, undisputed temperatures yet measured on earth are the 129°F (53.9°C) readings on four different occasions in Death Valley, California.

  4. 4
    A. R

    Thoroughly enjoying your posts Chris!

  5. 5
    Glen Davidson

    Presumably erupting volcanic craters are excluded from such records as well.

    But I wonder what are the highest “atmospheric temperatures” that have been recorded in environs like those.

    Glen Davidson

  6. 6
    Suido

    which will no doubt delight the Strines in the crowd.

    Not as much as your ridgy didge, true blue, ocker pronunciation.

    Re the final paragraph, when did the Dry Valleys in Antarctica last have rain? Hope you don’t mind third place…

  7. 7
    Argle Bargle

    But we’re’ good at being in second place around here.

    [runs around, shrieking at top of lungs] We’re Number Two! We’re Number Two!

  8. 8
    ImaginesABeach

    There are some records I don’t want to be there for -hottest temperature is one, coldest is another. But boy, is it nice to look at pictures of places where these things occur.

  9. 9
    Francisco Bacopa

    I’m just happy that the drought in southeast Texas lifted once PZ, Hitchens, and Dawkins came to Houston last October. They came, and we have been our usual rainy selves since then. It’s even going to drop below 70F tonight. Before three of the Horsemen came here last year, it didn’t drop below 70 at night until October.

    Of course, for Hitch it was a one way ride. He was expecting to have a tune up at MD Anderson and then go to Australia. But he never left and died a few weeks later.

    MD Anderson is a great example of why death rates don’t matter when choosing a hospital. I’m sure Cancer Treatment Centers of America has a lower death rate than Anderson, but Anderson is where celebrities come to die, or sometimes live thanks to their daring experimental interventions. And you don’t have to be rich or well insured, Anderson takes transfer patients from Harris County Hospital District, our own little blue enclave in a red state socialized medicine program.

  10. 10
    movablebooklady

    Well, durn. I lived in Tripoli Libya for two years in the mid 1950s and that “record” was one of the first things I learned. Not that Tripoli/Aziziah didn’t have other claims to fame, but world’s hottest was just sort of breathtaking. Now I have to disabuse myself.

  11. 11
    inflection

    Good reason for those records being in uninhabited places, of course — “hottest place on Earth” isn’t going to be very livable for creatures adapted to the more widely available climates.

    Perhaps the colony-minds of the tube worms surrounding black smokers on the ocean floor regard the rest of the planet as unbearably cold. That’s extremophiles for you.

  12. 12
    Ichthyic

    Thoroughly enjoying your posts Chris!

    yes, except for being reminded how bloody hot the CA desert can be… most of the year.

    I recall a buddy who lived in NJ complaining how the snow basically kept him locked in his house for 2 months of the year.

    I told him the SUN kept us locked in our houses in the desert for easily twice that.

    …you can always put MORE clothes on to stay warm, but you can only strip so much off…

  13. 13
    Chris Clarke

    …you can always put MORE clothes on to stay warm, but you can only strip so much off…

    Ichthyic, you’ve been talking to Annette, haven’t you.

    We’re still adapting to the move from Palm Springs to J Tree, and so we still have moments where we say “it’s getting warm” in the afternoon, check the temperature, see that it’s in the high 80s, and chuckle to each other… because in the last place we lived it got down to the high 80s around midnight.

  14. 14
    Ichthyic

    because in the last place we lived it got down to the high 80s around midnight.

    heh.

    yeah, in the ten plus years I lived there, I never did get used to the heat really.

    “it’s a dry heat” my ass.

    that, combined with those days/nights where it would be over 100 in the day, and freezing at night.

    maybe I’m a wimp, but I always found it hard to imagine Palm Springs before air conditioning.

  15. 15
    Ichthyic

    oh, btw, lived in Cat City all that time.

    howdy ex neighbor?

  16. 16
    Ichthyic

    ooh, this brings up a request:

    as a favor to a fellow survivor of the Coachella Valley, could you think about maybe doing a post on the state of the Salton Sea area sometime in the future?

    that place has both an interesting history, and a scary future.

  17. 17
    eigenperson

    According to the National Park Service, Furnace Creek has recorded a ground temperature of 201 degrees Fahrenheit.

    A quick calculation with the Stefan-Boltzmann law suggests that the maximum temperature of a surface with albedo 0.1, at Furnace Creek’s latitude, at noon on a clear summer solstice day, with the only source of heat being the sun, is 215 degrees F. So 201 degrees is within the realm of possibility for a ground temperature.

  18. 18
    Chris Clarke

    I am told that in the days before air conditioning there were fewer goddamn lawns and irrigated English Country Gardens in Palm Springs, the humidity was down around 4% where it should be in the Low Desert, and swamp coolers actually worked. I’m stopping to see for myself once I get my hands on the Tardis.

    And the last time I saw an updated regional climate model, Tucson was expected to have a climate like that of Furnace Creek by the late 21st century, so I have no idea how people are actually going to avoid bursting into flame in the Coachella Valley where it’s routinely hotter than Tucson.

  19. 19
    Ichthyic

    I’m stopping to see for myself once I get my hands on the Tardis.

    I’d pay for a seat on that trip.

    I have no idea how people are actually going to avoid bursting into flame in the Coachella Valley where it’s routinely hotter than Tucson

    cheap space suits with portable air conditioners?

  20. 20
    Ichthyic

    I am told that in the days before air conditioning there were fewer goddamn lawns and irrigated English Country Gardens

    don’t forget the 200 or so golf courses!

  21. 21
    Holms

    …you can always put MORE clothes on to stay warm, but you can only strip so much off…

    Ichthyic, you’ve been talking to Annette, haven’t you.

    Terrible song, but it seems appropriate.

  22. 22
    madtom1999

    Chris Clarke – I’ve also heard that Dallas temperture went up by some 15 degrees with the introduction of air conditioning everywhere. And an air conditioner can knock 15 degrees off so if everyone turned off their air conditioners they could all be the same temperature…

  23. 23
    madtom1999

    While I’m not disputing the possible error in the Libyan result why is the US so obsessed on being top of everything?
    As for air temperature I would imagine there are places in the sahara and other deserts where ‘genuine’ air temperature often exceeds 60C but there are no monitoring stations yet.
    Weather, as opposed to climate, can vary hugely over short distances – a month ago a village at the same height as us got 37mm of rain in two hours and cars floated away and it was on the news. We are about 1 mile away and we got 135mm at the same time. I’ve walked across the desert in Oregon and gone from about 110F (local weather report) to meltingly hot over an area of about 100yds of calm still air just before some dust devils hit. And then a couple of miles away into freezing air in an ice cave. Literally breathtaking.

  24. 24
    Ichthyic

    While I’m not disputing the possible error in the Libyan result why is the US so obsessed on being top of everything?

    there are two problems with this.

    one, EVERY country has lots of people that think it important they be the best at something.

    two, nobody in this thread cares one whit if the US has the warmest temperatures or not, and that is quite clear from both the OP and the discussions.

    conclusion: you’re way off base here.

    I’ve walked across the desert in Oregon and gone from about 110F (local weather report) to meltingly hot over an area of about 100yds of calm still air just before some dust devils hit. And then a couple of miles away into freezing air in an ice cave. Literally breathtaking.

    yup. Eastern Oregon yeah? did some trout fishing there 20 years back, and experienced the huge temp differences even going from the plateau down into some of the river valleys.

  25. 25
    David Marjanović

    200 or so golf courses

    *headdesk*

    I want to get violent.

  26. 26
    davidmarshall

    I wonder about snow records. The worldwide record for snowfall is at Mount Baker ski area in Washington, really on Mt. Shuksan, something like 1100 inches; but glaciologists say the snow is quite a bit heavier higher up on Baker. Who knows where or what the real record is? Snowfall is probably monitored in a small fraction as many places as temperature. Probably the real record snowfall is somewhere in the Coast Ranges of BC or SE Alaska. Or it could be some spot on Mount Rainier, which held the prior official record at I believe the 5000 foot level, or maybe somewhere in Kamchatka or even the Himalayas.

  27. 27
    wanderfound

    I don’t know the official LST, but there’s a place east of Coober Pedy that might be a contender.

    The Moon Plain Desert, not far from the Painted Desert where they filmed some of Priscilla (http://www.thepainteddesert.com.au/). It’s a black gibber plain; nothing but fist-sized black stones densely scattered over lifeless red sand all the way to the horizon. The stones heat up so much during the day that they sterilise even the normally invincible desert seeds; there isn’t a living thing to be seen, and trying to walk over it is impossible without serious boots. Picking up one of the stones during the day is an easy way of burning the crap out of your hands.

  28. 28
    Ichthyic

    I want to get violent.

    it was, in fact, quite ridiculous.

    new ones being planned every year too.

    the way they “mitigated” it?

    well, by god, they use 10% recycled wastewater to water the fairways with!

    don’t dent your head on that desk.

    oh, btw, water table levels for the underground aquifer in that area dropped by 60 feet in the 10 years I lived there.

    an underground aquifer, I might add, that is the size of a large lake (like about the size of lake Arrowhead in CA), but is ONLY fed by runoff and snowmelt from the nearby San Jacinto mountain.

    On the bright side, over that same period, the city has taken to removing any city landscaping that uses grass, and replacing it with native species and rock gardens.

    I’d say that managed to remove maybe a little less than 1% of the high water usage landscaping in the area.

    woot!

  29. 29
    cardinalsmurf

    Used to live in Barstow in the late 80′s. Didn’t measure temps at the time, not with instrumentation at least. I can’t offer data, but I can offer this anecdote: it’s friggin hot out there!!!

    @Chris Clarke – did you guys get a whiff of the Salton Sea last Monday? We sure did out here in Lake Elsinore! I had thought it was a truck carrying fertilizer that may have overturned. The truth took me by surprise. Lived in California all my life and I had never smelled it before to my recollection.

  30. 30
    davem

    Who knows where or what the real record is?

    Somewhere coastal, I’d guess – with a prevailing onshore wind (but not too much wind). Relatively warm, wet air getting blown across cold land, before it gets too cold. Mountain ranges near the coast to lift the air up to dew point. Alaska might be the place, but the Great Lord Google (pbuh) tells me:

    Remarkably, the NCDC now seems to accept without question a 78” snow accumulation on February 7, 1963 at a remote site located on the mile 47 marker of the Richardson Highway in Alaska (to its credit the WMO Climate Extremes Committee has, as of now, not published this as a new world record weather extreme).

  31. 31
    Ichthyic

    . The truth took me by surprise. Lived in California all my life and I had never smelled it before to my recollection.

    it’s dying.

    fast.

    and evidently, CA no longer has the capital or the will, or both, to do anything about it.

    one of the reasons I’m hoping Chris will do a post on it.

  32. 32
    andyo

    Sorry, a bit OT but since some of you are talking about the area…

    I’m making a 2.5-3 hour drive to Joshua Tree (the park) tomorrow, to be there at nightfall (from LA). I’m trying to catch the milky way before it disappears into the not-summer horizon, any of you guys can recommend a spot? Right now I’m planning to enter the park from the south and drive a bit into the park, turn right at the visitor center and park my car around here for a few hours, then at about midnight, drive back home. I need the quickest way in and out, so I don’t spend too much time driving, and the last time (and only) I went there for some hiking I did that. But I also want to get deep enough that there’s no light pollution.

  33. 33
    Chris Clarke

    I’m about a mile north of the Park boundary with lights in the neighborhood and you can see the Milky Way from my driveway, so inside the Park it’s hard to go wrong. But the easter you go the darker it gets. The Pinto Basin is quite dark indeed.

  34. 34
    andyo

    Thanks for the confirmation!

  35. 35
    Chris Clarke

    @Chris Clarke – did you guys get a whiff of the Salton Sea last Monday? We sure did out here in Lake Elsinore! I had thought it was a truck carrying fertilizer that may have overturned. The truth took me by surprise. Lived in California all my life and I had never smelled it before to my recollection.

    Boy, did I ever get a whiff of it. Apparently it was a lot worse on the other side of the Transverse Ranges, tho.

    Ichthyic, I can probably come up with something interesting on the Sea, but until then here’s what I wrote at KCET.

  36. 36
    Crissa

    I was given a weather station for christmas after drooling over it all year and so far… I can’t get it to record any temperatures except indoors and the weather vane is stuck 20° from north so wind isn’t read right (not that I expect wind would be read at all under the canopy of the redwoods). And the rain gauge is missing a component which annoyed me.

  37. 37
    Ichthyic

    until then here’s what I wrote at KCET.

    It’s worse than I thought.

    I kept telling everyone I knew in the valley that they should sell and get out before the sea went belly up.

    people don’t seem to grasp the health hazard that thing will become once you get alkaline sediment and toxic algae spores blowing everywhere.

    sounds like it’s too late to do anything about it, short of replicating the events that created it in the first place!

    not gonna happen.

    so, makes me wonder what will become of the residents of much of the Coachella valley when it finally does completely die.

    probably will apply for federal emergency loans to abandon their houses?

  38. 38
    Ichthyic

    But I also want to get deep enough that there’s no light pollution.

    if you can make it, try keys view:

    http://www.myscenicdrives.com/drives/california/joshua-tree

    kinda hard to really escape light pollution anywhere in so cal, but that should give you a good location to scout from.

  39. 39
    StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return!

    (Paris Hilton) That’s hot! (/Paris Hilton)

  40. 40
    StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return!

    Wonder how the Aral sea smells?

  41. 41
    andyo

    if you can make it, try keys view:

    Thanks, it went just as planned, it was fine. I’d never seen (probably the word should be “noticed” the Milky Way though, I wasn’t expecting to see it with the naked eye. I’m embarrassed that I haven’t looked at the sky almost at all. I took my phone and the amazing Google Sky Map app and started checking out the constellations.

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