Death Valley beats Libya's bogus hot day

12/29/2012 12:00 AM

12/30/2012 11:48 AM

FURNACE CREEK – For Death Valley, a place that embraces its extremes, this has long been an affront: As furnace-hot as it gets, 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 could attest to: There is no place hotter in the world. A 134-degree reading registered on July 10, 1913, at Greenland Ranch is now the official world record.

"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 a few years back.

Promotional leaflets that still boast of Death Valley as being merely the hottest place in the United States are being rewritten, and resort owners say they are girding for a crush of heat-seeking visitors 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, editor of DeathValley.com, an online newsletter promoting the valley. "You don't underestimate Death Valley."

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."

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 the dispute.

It took a year to investigate the claim; the inquiry was hampered by the revolution in Libya. The final report found five reasons to disqualify the Libyan 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.

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.

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."

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.

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