. . . is now Death Valley, California, according to an article in yesterday’s New York Times. The previous world record, from Libya, has been deep-sixed:
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. [JAC: that’s 56.6ºC].
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.)
I spent months working in Death Valley as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Caifornia at Davis, trying to find out how far flies can fly (the desert is good for that), but I always worked in the cooler months—March and April when the highs hover around 80º F. I once went in summer to see if there were any flies there, and planned to camp out, but the temperature was over 120º F (49º C) and I was forced, despite my penurious state, to buy an air-conditioned motel room. There were no flies to be found: they could not have survived, much less bred, in that heat. My theory was that they repopulate the desert oases every spring from the nearby mountains, and this was supported by our finding that flies could fly up to 16 km overnight in the desert.
But that’s another story. Here are a few pictures from my last trip to Death Valley— in March, 2005. Click photos to enlarge.
The valley as you approach it from the pass over the Panamint Mountains. It looks ominous, and when it’s hot it’s like descending into a furnace (click pictures to enlarge). Those white patches in the distance are salt flats, remnants of an ancient saline lake.
The reason I visited last time was that there had been rare spring rains, and heavy ones, which not only caused flooding but produced an even rarer bloom of desert wildflowers. In nearly every other year there is almost no vegetation save creosote and saltbush. I’ve always wondered where the insects come from to pollinate these flowers (yes, many are insect-pollinated), given that they bloom only once a decade or so.
The salt flats in the center of the valley, the remnants of an ancient Pleistocene lake (Lake Manly), are the most desolate parts of the park, completely lacking vegetation. Yet even here one can catch errant flies—almost certainly flies that bred in distant oases and got lost. During this visit, the rains had collected in the flats, turning them into an eerie landscape of salty knobs poking above the brine. This area is called “The Devil’s Golf Course.” The first time I visited I found a golf ball in the salt, which I kept and christened “The Devil’s Golf Ball.” There is usually not this much water there, so I had to hop among the salt nodules.
Finally, there are fish there! Pupfish, to be exact: the endemic Death Valley pupfish Cyprinodon salinus. There are also at least two other species in the same genus in outlying areas of the park, and three other species in the Death Valley area. These fish have been genetically isolated from each other since the lake dried up about 10,000 years ago. They’re a good example of genetic divergence in geographic isolation (“allopatric speciation”) and have survived because the pools and streams are permanent, though subject to severe diminution when it’s hot.
These are unimpressive-looking fish, but quite an evolutionary marvel. Here are some fish in shallow Salt Creek, near the visitor’s center.
I think Death Valley is one of the most beautiful places in the U.S. It has almost no vegetation, but the beauty and geology are eerie and unparalleled anywhere on Earth. And it’s only a few hours via car to the wonders of the Sierra Nevada. The best time to visit is the spring. When I went in July, though, there were dozens of tourists, all European and mostly German. For some reason the Germans like the heat. They all congregated around the swimming pool, diving in when the heat became intolerable, and they were all beet-red from sunburn. The Times piece notes this:
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.”