FURNACE CREEK, Calif. — For Death Valley, a place that embraces its extremes, this has long been an affront: As furnace-hot as it gets here, it could not lay claim to being the hottest place on Earth. That honor, as it were, has gone since 1922 to a city on the northwestern tip of Libya.
Until now. After a yearlong investigation by a team of climate scientists, the World Meteorological Organization, the climate agency of the United Nations, announced this fall that it was throwing out a reading of 136.4 degrees claimed by the city of Al Aziziyah on Sept. 13, 1922. It made official what anyone who has soldiered through a Death Valley summer afternoon here could attest to. There is no place hotter in the world.
A 134-degree reading registered on July 10, 1913, at Greenland Ranch here is now the official world record.
And while people were not quite jumping up and down at the honor, the 134-degree reading has inspired the kind of civic pride that for most communities might come with having a winning Little League baseball team.
“For those of us who survive here in the summer, it was no surprise that it’s the hottest place on the world,” said Charlie Callaghan, a Death Valley National Park ranger who personally recorded a 129-degree day here a few years back.
The opening wall panel in a new exhibition at the National Park Service visitor center off Highway 190 has been unveiled with a burst of superlatives: “Hottest. Driest. Lowest.” (Lowest refers to a spot in Death Valley, Badwater Basin, which at 282 feet below sea level is the lowest place in North America.)
‘It’s about time’
Promotional leaflets that still boast of Death Valley as being merely the hottest place in the U.S. are being rewritten, and resort owners say they are girding for a crush of heat-seeking visitors come next summer. There is even talk of having an official 100-year celebration of the record-setting measurement next July.
“It’s about time for science, but I think we all knew it was coming,” said Randy Banis, the editor of Death Valley.com, an online newsletter promoting the valley. “You don’t underestimate Death Valley. Most of us enthusiasts are proud that the extremes that we have known about at Death Valley are indeed the most harsh on earth.”
Still, the designation was a momentous event among this nation’s community of climatologists — or, as some of them proudly refer to themselves, “weather geeks” — the climax of a long debate set off by a blog item written by Christopher Burt, a meteorologist with Weather Underground. Burt cited numerous reasons to be suspicious of the Libyan claim, which he described in an interview the other day as “completely garbage.”
“The more we looked at it, the more obvious it appeared to be an error,” he said.
Burt brought his blog to the attention of members of the World Meteorological Organization. Randall Cerveny, a geology professor at Arizona State University who holds the title rapporteur of climate extremes for the World Climate Organization, appointed a committee of 13 climatologists, including himself and Burt, to resolve what can often be tricky disputes.
“There are a lot of places that do like these records,” he said. “It can be a source of pride for that country or a source of contention for other countries. Politics unfortunately is going to play a role sometime in the determining of these records.”
It took a year to investigate the claim — the inquiry was hampered by the revolution in Libya, which resulted in the temporary disappearance of a Libyan scientist who was central to the work. The final report found five reasons to disqualify the Libya claim, including questionable instruments, an inexperienced observer who made the reading and the fact that the reading was anomalous for that region and in the context of other temperatures reported in Libya that day.
“The WMO assessment is that the highest recorded surface temperature of 56.7 degrees C (134 degrees F) was measured on 10 July 1913” in Death Valley, the report said.
The announcement was made on Sept. 11, the same day as the attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, and thus drew little notice.
Time to visit
Though it is easy to forget on days when it is so hot that people dare not step out of their cars, part of the allure of Death Valley has always been — besides the staggering beauty of its canyons, mountains and sunsets — the sheer challenge of visiting it.
“I think there might be such a thing as a weather tourist,” Burt said. “I may be one.”
Ben Cassell, who runs the Panamint Springs Resort on the west side of Death Valley, said that even before the long-awaited official recognition, his summer rooms typically were booked up by the spring, mainly by Europeans seeking temperatures they cannot find back home.
“The Europeans love to visit in the summer when it is the hottest,” he said. “The Americans tend to go in the spring for the flowers.”
The European tourists, he said, “definitely are looking for the extreme.”
“We get people who get upset that today it’s 120, and the day before they got here it was 121,” he said. “They want to have bragging rights.”
Callaghan, who would know, said there most certainly was a difference between 115 degrees and, say, 125 degrees.
“You kind of get used to the 115s, the 120s,” he said. “Once it gets above 120, 125, it’s just downright miserable. It’s just so excruciatingly hot. You don’t walk outside your air-conditioned car or your office. You don’t want to have jewelry on because you feel the burning on the ears. Your eyes, your eyebrows, feel real hot.”
Truth be told, it was hard to think of Death Valley in all its hot glory on a visit the weekend before Christmas. The thermometer outside the Ranch at Furnace Creek — which measures up to 140— read a chilly 55 degrees. People could be seen on canyon hiking trails clothed in scarfs and parkas.
“There’s no normal or abnormal,” said Bob Greenberg, a ranger on duty. “But if it gets anywhere near freezing, you hear a lot of whining around here.”
For what it is worth, Burt said he had issues as well with the Death Valley claim of 134 degrees, and suspects it may be wrong. “It’s anomalous, even for Death Valley,” he said.
But no matter. Even if 134-Death Valley goes the way of 136.4-Libya, the temperature has most assuredly reached 129 degrees here in Furnace Creek at least three times, one of them recorded by Callaghan. And 129 is just as much a world record as 134.
“Death Valley would still win, so to speak, even if the 134 was erroneous,” Burt said.
Now that meteorologists have invalidated a 136.4-degree reading claimed by a Libyan city for 90 years, Death Valley is officially the hottest place on Earth. OK, California, you win; now please turn up the air conditioning.