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The hottest temperature in history may have been recorded Sunday in Death Valley. Why the data is confusing

August 17, 2020, 4:40 PM UTC

Death Valley National Park hit a worrying milestone Sunday. The temperature near the park’s Furnace Creek Visitor Center hit 130 degrees Fahrenheit.

The reading is considered preliminary, according to Weather.com, and will be subject to review. But it may be the hottest temperature ever reliably recorded on the surface of the Earth.

Sunday’s Death Valley high came alongside a devastating heat wave across much of the West and Southwest United States. In California, the heat has created a huge surge in electricity demand, resulting in intermittent blackouts. In the Phoenix area, where temperatures rose as high as 117 degrees late last week, at least 25 deaths have been attributed to the heat wave.

Weather authorities also confirmed last week that July 2020 was tied for the second-hottest month on record, just behind July 2019 and tied with July 2016. Meteorologists say the readings are a clear indication of human-caused climate change, prompted largely by the burning of fossil fuels, which sends huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, in turn trapping more heat on the Earth’s surface.

The consequences of climate change extend beyond higher temperatures. This is also expected to be a record-setting year for the late summer and early fall hurricane season, which is expected to produce as many as twice the normal number of major storms. Warming oceans are believed to increase the intensity of hurricanes.

If confirmed, Sunday’s Death Valley temperature would not be an official all-time high: A few other readings of 130 degrees or more have been recorded since reliable weather tracking began in the early 20th century. But all of those readings have been disputed by experts. So if it holds up to expert review, Death Valley’s Sunday high may become the hottest ever reliably recorded anywhere on Earth.

The most notable past extreme temperature high was a reading of 134 degrees Fahrenheit made on July 10, 1913, also taken in Death Valley during a heat wave. But climatologist William Reid in 2016 argued that this temperature was “not possible from a meteorological perspective” and concluded that the 1913 readings were likely errors.

The previous world record high of 136 degrees Fahrenheit, recorded in 1922 in Libya, had already been discredited by the World Meteorological Organization.

Another contender for the all-time high was a reading of 131 degrees Fahrenheit taken in Tunisia in July 1931. But according to Weather.com, that temperature has also been disputed because of equipment error.

The average global temperature for 2019 was 1.78 degrees Fahrenheit above historical averages, according to NASA. The Paris Climate accord, which went into effect in 2016, was aimed at curbing global carbon emissions enough to limit the rise in global temperatures to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (two degrees Celsius) over the next century. But the Trump administration started the withdrawal of the U.S. from the agreement, and a 2019 report found signatory countries were not keeping their commitments, putting the world on track for temperatures up to seven degrees Fahrenheit (four degrees Celsius) above historical averages.

The same report predicted this change will incur $2 billion per day in economic losses.

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