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New analysis shreds claim that Death Valley recorded Earth’s highest temperature in 1913

Light refracts through rising hot air near a warning sign on the eve of the AdventurCORPS Badwater 135 ultra-marathon race on July 14, 2013, in Death Valley National Park, Calif. (David McNew/Getty Images)
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Death Valley, Calif., boasts that it is home to the highest temperature ever recorded on Earth. In 1913, the temperature there reportedly spiked to a blistering 134 degrees, a world record that has been endorsed by the World Meteorological Organization.

But an exhaustive analysis published Monday has determined the record is not legitimate. The temperature reported was “essentially not possible from a meteorological perspective,” according to geographer and climatologist William T. Reid, who conducted the analysis, and Christopher Burt, an expert on weather extreme, who assisted Reid. Reid and Burt conclude the weather observer erred in taking the measurement, officially logged at Greenland Ranch at Furnace Creek in Death Valley on July 10, 1913.

Reid and Burt, who published their 7,000-word critique of the record at Weather Underground, identified three main problems with the temperature measurement.

First, the temperatures reported in Death Valley when the record was set were “not consistent” with weather observed in the same region at the same time. “There is no indication that an exceptional heat wave was occurring in the Southwest U.S. during this period,” Reid and Burt write. ” ‘Isolated hot spots,’ whether a result of wind patterns or local geography, cannot account for the exceptional temperatures reported at Greenland Ranch given known meteorology of Death Valley during extreme heat events.”

Second, neighboring weather sites did not post temperatures that were unusually hot. “The extreme temperature of 134°F measured on July 10, 1913 did not correlate with observations at other sites in the region on this date and likewise for the entire period of the extreme temperature readings reported from Greenland Ranch during the week of July 7-14, 1913,” Reid and Burt note.

John Christy, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Alabama at Huntsville and Alabama state climatologist, independently analyzed nearby temperatures from 1913 and agreed that Death Valley’s readings were irregular.

Third, Reid and Burt assert the weather observer at the time, Oscar Denton, was inexperienced and may have even fudged the numbers. “The heat wave in July 1913 was the first such he was ‘in charge of’ as an official COOP observer and perhaps he was not familiar with temperature measurement in a controlled environment. …” Reid and Burt state. “Thus he fell back on what he perceived to be his own experience of Death Valley heat and associated temperatures and he consequently exaggerated the temperatures indicated on the maximum thermometer to values he thought were more realistic.” Reid and Burt admit they have no evidence to “conclusively prove” the readings were doctored, however.

The analysis by Reid and Burt has not been peer-reviewed or vetted. But Christy as well as Jan Null, a certified consulting meteorologist based in California, said the record is worth reviewing. “If this was an arraignment, I think there is enough evidence to go forward with a trial,” Null said.

If the record is to be formally evaluated and possibly overturned, it must go through a U.S. body known as the National Climate Extremes Committee.

“If, in the judgment of the [National Weather Service] and [NOAA’s] National Centers for Environmental Information, a national extreme value warrants investigation, the NCEC will assemble a team with the geographical and technical expertise required to determine the accuracy of the reported extreme,” the Committee’s website says.

When records have already been certified, as in the case of Death Valley’s 1913 record, the committee is not obligated to take another look. Its website says: “The Committee’s mandate does not include the re-evaluation of the existing extreme values.”

But Deke Arndt, who chairs the committee, said he wouldn’t “rule out” re-examining the record, though he stressed it would take time. “I do think for certain kinds of special data, re-examination can have merit,” he said. “We ultimately want the best data out there.”

If the National Climate Extremes Committee proceeds with a review and rules the Death Valley reading is indeed bogus, it would then be referred to the World Meteorological Organization which maintains global records.

Randy Cerveny, the chief rapporteur of weather and climate extremes for the World Meteorological Organization, said the organization “is keeping a close eye on these interesting discussion points” raised by Reid.

“At this time, we will defer first to the National Climate Extremes Committee potential investigation and insights,” Cerveny said. “Then, if necessary, we will evaluate for any global record using an international panel of climatologists and meteorologists.”

In 2012, the World Meteorological Organization invalidated the previous world temperature record of 136.4 degrees from El Azizia in Libya from 1922. Thirteen scientists from nine countries conducted a review of the Libyan reading which uncovered five fundamental problems with the temperature measurement.

If the Death Valley reading from 1913 were also invalidated, the location would still hold at least a share of the record for the hottest temperature ever “reliably measured” according to Burt. On June 30, 2013, Death Valley soared to 129.2 degrees. Burt says the only other location which has posted a credible reading this hot is Mitribah, Kuwait, which also hit 129.2 degrees on July 21 in the summer.

The World Meteorological Organization is currently in the final stages of assembling an evaluation team to validate the Mitribah, Kuwait temperature.

A number of other locations have logged temperatures higher than 129.2, but Burt says they are probably not legitimate. Of course, for the Death Valley and Mitribah readings of 129.2 degrees to officially rank as the world’s hottest temperatures, these other readings would have go through the arduous process of being invalidated — which could take years, if it ever happens.