Thursday, July 11, 2013

Death Valley at 134 Degrees, July 10, 1913: A Meteorological Sleuthing Tale

I took this photo early one morning last month at Furnace Creek, the lodgings at Death Valley National Park, at the bulletin board in the parking lot where tourists (many of them from Europe, especially Germany) flock in the dead of summer to experience extreme heat and have their photos taken at the thermometer.

The hottest day so far this summer in Death Valley occurred about a week after I took that picture: 129 degrees on June 20. (Yesterday, the Death Valley high was 120 degrees.)

But the hottest ever was 134 degrees on July 10, 1913, 100 years ago yesterday. That was the highest temperature ever recorded on earth. And therein lies a tale, because Death Valley was awarded the record for the hottest temperature ever only last year, after languishing in second place for 90 years behind Al Azizia in Libya, where the claim had been that it hit 136.4 degrees Fahrenheit (58C), on Sept. 13, 1922.

Turns out the Libyan record was a clunker. In January 2012, after reviewing evidence disputing the Libyan record that had been collected by curious meteorologists from California to England to Libya, the World Meteorological Organization stripped Libya of the record and returned it to Death Valley, where the data were not in any dispute.

Here's how this particular egg got fried (and by the way, so many tourists are imitating that media hot-weather stunt of trying to fry an egg on a sidewalk that Furnace Creek officials had to issue a plea for them to stop it this week):

The account is from Christopher C. Burt, the weather historian at

In early 2010, an e mail look was making the rounds among some meteorologists around the world discussing some skepticism that had been raised about the 1922 Libyan records.on which the frecord-temperature claim had been based.

Piotr Djakow, a Polish weather researcher, "had produced a chart of the monthly temperature amplitudes at Azizia for each September from 1921-1940, and this chart raised an alarm" about the Linyan claim, Burt wrote on his blog. Khalid Ibrahim el Fadli, the director of the climate department at the Libyan National Meteorological Center in Tripoli, also weighed in expressing skepticism, says Bart, who then joined the sleuthing, seeking more data and finally posting a blog entry in October, disputing the Libyan record.

The World Meteorological Organization, which certifies global climate and temperature data, then got involved. In Libya, meanwhile, El Fadli uncovered a key colonial-era document, the handwritten log sheet from the Azizia station for September 1922. It showed major discrepancies and sloppy record-keeping, including the transposing of figures.

The Libyan revolution interrupted the investigation, and global meteorologists had to call a hiatus on the investigations when Libyan dictator Gaddafi began claiming that foreign conspirators were "using Libyan climate data to plan their assault on the country," writes Burt, who along with colleagues around the world then "thought El Fadli was a dead man."

But in August 2011, with Gaddafi's regime in rout, El Fadli again turned up in the e-mail loop. "With the investigation back on track, committee members made further progress in October and November," says Burt. Then, he adds, "Dr. David Parker of the U.K. Meteorological Office did a reanalysis of surface conditions across the Libyan region for September 1922." The case was soon closed. At Azizia in September 1922, an inexperienced colonial observer had simply got the numbers wrong in his observations.

Burt says: "With all of the pieces of the puzzle now falling into place, a vote was taken in January 2012 resulting in a unanimous decision by the WMO [World Meteorological Organization] committee members to disallow the Azizia record."

Burt's conclusion is important:

"The WMO committee added the following comment: 'An important aspect of this long investigation was that is isn't just climatologists and meteorologists changing their minds [as a result of evidence]. It goes beyond that. This investigation demonstrates that, because of continued improvements in meteorology and climatology, researchers can now reanalyze past weather records in much more detail and with greater precision than ever before. The end result is an even better set of data for analysis of important global and regional questions involving climate change. Additionally, it shows the effectiveness of truly global cooperation and analysis." And so, the WMO concluded that "the official highest recorded surface temperature of 56.7 degrees C (134F)" occurred on July 10, 1913, at Death Valley.

As they say, you could look it up.


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