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Death Valley Scorches Its Own Record for the Hottest Month in History

Temperatures averaged a blistering 108.1 degrees Fahrenheit for the month of July

This critter soaks in the heat of a 112 degrees Fahrenheit day in Death Valley. ( loren chipman/CC BY-NC 2.0)
smithsonian.com

In a race against itself, Death Valley, California just one-upped its own temperature record from last year, closing out July 2018 as the hottest month ever recorded. The average daily temperature in the toasty locale was a suffocating 108.1 degrees Fahrenheit—nearly a full degree increase from last year’s record of 107.3.

To track the temps, volunteers brave the heat once a day in Death Valley, inspecting two thermometers recording the day’s highs and lows at a weather station near the Furnace Creek Visitor Center. Considering Death Valley accomplished this same feat this time last year, perhaps this is unsurprising—but according to climate scientists, it should certainly still be concerning. To put things in perspective, when the Valley tallied its numbers in 2017, the record it trounced was nearly 100 years old.

“The old records belong to a world that no longer exists,” Martin Hoerling, a research meteorologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, tells Joel Achenbach and Angela Fritz at the Washington Post.

According to Achenbach and Fritz in the Post, climate models have been predicting such sweltering surges for three decades—and suggest that the hottest temps have yet to come.

Death Valley isn’t baking solo in this furnace. Locales up and down the West Coast have been setting records in recent years, including Palm Springs, California, as well as San Diego and Los Angeles. Zooming out, the Northern Hemisphere has been suffering on a grander scale, with cities in Ireland, Russia, Japan, Algeria and Oman—among many other countries—reporting blistering record-breakers as well. For a while, it appeared that a dark horse locale in the Middle East might pull ahead as a serious contender for the world record for monthly temperature. But Death Valley simply refused to be outdone, packing heat with daily highs cresting above 120 degrees on 21 out of July’s 31 days.

In the heat of the moment, the world is feeling the pressure—literally.

“We’ve had a large ridge of high pressure over us for a good chunk of the month,” says Stan Czyzyk, a forecaster at the National Weather Service’s Las Vegas office, in an interview with Brian Kahn for Earther. Heat waves are the products of air trapped beneath domes of high pressure—gargantuan ovens from which heat can’t escape. The pressure pushes air downward, plugging bundles of warm air close to the ground like a stopper. One of these high-pressure systems has planted itself smugly over the West Coast, settling over the Valley.

And lucky Death Valley gets to revel in a few other parching perks. At its low elevation, the Valley bears more of the atmosphere on its shoulders, further compressing the air into stifling pockets of heat. And, as the driest location in the United States, Death Valley has precious little water to soak up solar energy in the process of evaporation, further ramping up aridity.

While scientists are hesitant to definitively blame global warming for single weather events, climate change has certainly increased the likelihood of these extreme instances of heat. The trends of the past several decades have also been strikingly clear.

At least Death Valley may soon get to breathe a temporary sigh of relief. July is over, and Czyzyk reassures Earther that cooler temperatures may be ahead as the pressure system breaks.

About Katherine J. Wu
Katherine J. Wu

Katherine J. Wu is a PhD student in Microbiology and Immunobiology at Harvard University and Co-Director Emeritus of Science in the News, a graduate student organization that trains young scientists to communicate science to the general public. She is also a 2018 AAAS Mass Media Fellow at Smithsonian magazine. Website: katherinejwu.com

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