How the Record for Hottest Temperature Ever Was Refuted

Flickr user Ray Tsang

Weather Underground’s resident weather historian Christopher Burt posted a fantastic description of how an international group of scholars disproved a 90-year-old thermometer reading, which registered the hottest temperature ever recorded.

This might seem like an impossible task at the best of times: The temperature (136.4 degrees Fahrenheit) was recorded in Libya in 1922, and all the records were in Libya. But the research was made even more difficult by the timing. The scholars were conducting their investigation at the same time the recent revolution was ramping up in Libya.

Khalid Ibrahim El Fadli, the director of the climate department at the Libyan National Meteorological Center, located the records but was unable to talk to his international collaborators for six months during 2011, as the Libyan government had shut down outside communication.

From Burt’s post:

We didn’t hear again from El Fadli until August 2011 when the revolutionary forces closed in on Tripoli. One of our committee members, Dr. Manola Brunet (WMO chair of the Open Programme Area Group on Monitoring and Analysis of Climate Variability and Change), who knew El Fadli personally, had up until then been unable to contact him by phone or email. Then on August 13, 2011, we received our first email from El Fadli.

It turned out that all through this period, El Fadli had had access to the Internet through his office’s satellite connection. “But using such posed serious dangers, if anyone discovered me I would probably lose my life. Hence, I never used that connection,” he wrote to his collaborators. At the same time, he was dealing with shortages of basic supplies and the dangers of the security situation—at one point, he wrote, his car came under fire.

Fortunately, El Fadli survived, and once the records were analyzed, the World Meteorological Association found that the reading was invalid. The investigators think that the culprit was an observer who didn’t know how to read the thermometer.

From the paper:

“This committee identified five major concerns with the 1922 El Azizia temperature extreme record, specifically (a) potentially problematical instrumentation, (b) a probable new and inexperienced observer at time of observation, (c) unrepresentative microclimate of the observation site, (d) poor correspondence of the extreme to other locations and (e) poor comparison to subsequent temperature values recorded at the site. Based on these concerns, the WMO World Archive of Weather and Climate Extremes has rejected this temperature extreme of 58°C as the highest temperature officially recorded on the planet. The WMO assessment is that the highest recorded surface temperature of 56.7°C (134°F) was measured on 10 July 1913 at Greenland Ranch (Death Valley) CA USA.”

That might not be the end of the story though. Burt expresses skepticism at the Death Valley measurement as well. A detective’s work is never done.

Thanks to Highly Allochthonous for tweeting about the blog post.

More from

Visualizing a Year of Extreme Weather
Weather vs. Climate
Can We Do Something About This Weather?

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.