In the popular imagination, Death Valley in Southern California is the hottest place on Earth. At 3:41 p.m. local time Sunday, it lived up to that reputation when the temperature at the aptly named Furnace Creek reached 130 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the NOAA Weather Prediction center.
If that reading — the equivalent of 54 degrees Celsius — is verified by climate scientists, a process that could take months, it would be the highest temperature ever reliably recorded on the planet.
Death Valley is no stranger to heat. Sitting 282 feet below sea level in the Mojave Desert in southeastern California near the Nevada border, it is the lowest, driest and hottest location in the United States. It is sparsely populated, with just 576 residents, according to the most recent census.
Brandi Stewart, the spokeswoman for Death Valley National Park, said that the valley is so hot because of the configuration of its lower-than-sea-level basin and surrounding mountains. The superheated air gets trapped in a pocket and just circulates. “It’s like stepping into a convection oven every day in July and August,” she said.
So how does 130 degrees, which she walked out into Sunday, feel? “It doesn’t feel that different from 125 degrees,” she said. “The feeling of that heat on my face, it can almost take your breath away.”
She added that “People say, ‘Oh, but it’s a dry heat!’ I want to do a little bit of an eye roll there,” she said. “Humidity has its downsides too, but dry heat is also not fun.”
She grew up in western Pennsylvania and her last posting with the park service was Mount Rainier National Park, one of the snowiest places on Earth. “I’m ready for cooler temperatures,” she said.
The heat rises through the afternoon, generally reaching the peak from 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. The high on Monday was 127.
Confirming a record temperature like this is not as simple as looking at a thermometer. There are caveats.
Higher temperatures have been reported than the one recorded Sunday, but many climate scientists have questioned the reliability of these readings.
For example, Death Valley claims the record for the hottest temperature ever recorded in 1913, at 134 degrees. But a 2016 analysis by extreme weather expert Christopher Burt found that the reading did not align with other observations made in the region, concluding that it was “not possible from a meteorological perspective.”
Setting aside that 107-year-old claim, and some other unverified readings over the years, the previous record for highest temperature was also observed in Death Valley on June 30, 2013, at 129 degrees. The same temperature was also recorded in Kuwait and Pakistan several years later.
And that is also important to understand: There may be hotter places than Death Valley, such as parts of the Sahara, but they are too remote for reliable monitoring, said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles and the National Center for Atmospheric Research.
Measuring temperatures reliably is tricky. The thermometers should be shielded from the sun and elevated above ground, according to standards set by the World Meteorological Organization. The Death Valley instrument, called a thermistor, was shielded and sends readings to a satellite hourly.
Record temperatures are validated by the Climate Extremes Committee, a collaboration of weather experts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other organizations, according to Daniel Berc, a meteorologist with NOAA.
If the Death Valley temperature is validated, then Swain said it should be thought of as “the hottest reliably measured temperature in recorded history on Earth,” at least for now.
As the greenhouse gases that humans generate continue heating the planet, more records are expected, and not just in Death Valley.
“I don’t think any of this is really surprising,” said Jeremy Pal, an environmental engineering professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. “As climate continues to warm, we’d expect more of these events and more of these record-breaking temperatures.”
The broiling temperatures in Death Valley are part of “a laundry list of atmospheric phenomena that have unfolded in very unusual or extreme ways,” Swain said, adding that they will only get worse in the coming decades.
California is experiencing a record-breaking heat wave, with unusual humidity, which has included a rare set of violent lightning storms that have, in turn, sparked wildfires.
The possible record in Death Valley, he said, “is part of that,” and forecasts suggested the temperature could go even higher, to 133 degrees.
“The Earth is getting warmer, and Death Valley is already a hot place,” said Swain, noting that he visited the depopulated desert area when the temperature was about 115 degrees.
As the planet continues to warm, he said, a temperature of 130 degrees in a remote place is “a number we may eventually see in places that people actually live.”
Dr. J. Marshall Shepherd, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Georgia and a former president of the American Meteorological Society, said, “People notice the changes in extremes because they affect everything from our health to the productivity of the very food that we eat.”
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