The hottest place on Earth

December 29, 2012 • 11:19 am

. . . 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.”

Go visit!

59 thoughts on “The hottest place on Earth

  1. I love Death Valley. I was last there in October when i climbed Telescope Peak. From the summit you can see Mt. Whitney (the highest point in the 48 contiguous states) and Badwater (the lowest point in North America) at the same time.


    1. Beat me to the point I was going to make — that the highest and lowest points in the States are visible from each other.

      I definitely need to make a trip out there. It’s not that far, and I’m certainly acclimated by now….


      1. Well, Ben, I’m going to have to correct you, and there’s no way you can maintain that you were right! You can see Death Valley from the top of Mt. Whitney, but not vice-versa. There are two mountain ranges between them that block the view out of the valley.

        How do you like them intestines!

        1. Wait — I’m confused.

          If you have a clear line of sight from the top of Mt. Whitney to Death Valley, meaning that, with a good enough telescope you could see somebody standing in Death Valley…then said person could, Shirley, point a similar telescope back the opposite direction and see you waving from the top of Mt. Whitney, no?

          Or is there some sort of weird spatio-temporal distortion going on such that photons only travel in the one direction…?


          1. Okay, let me correct myself a bit. I’ve never been to the top of Mount Whitney, but I know for sure that you can’t see Mount Whitney from Death Valley. So, I guess we may BOTH be wrong!

              1. You can not see Mt. Whitney from Badwater, nor vice versa. But you can see both from Telescope Peak. (You can see the general area of Death Valley from Mt. Whitney but not the valley floor.)


    1. Why is that relevant, exactly? Well, since you brought it up, I don’t see it as odious (as some have) that I changed my mind about the field. Part of it involved doing more reading about it, and teaching it, but most of it I attribute to the fact that the early excesses of evolutionary psychology have been tempered as the field has started policing itself.

      1. It isn’t relevant to this thread – immediately after my prior post I picked this up on FtB via Facebook and thought you might be intereted.

        I did it via this thread because I don’t know what off-thread channel you can be contacted by.

      2. I think that is very well said, sir. I have noticed there is a lag of 5-10 years for cutting edge psychology to trickle down into the lay understanding (and perhaps this is true of all sciences). If one is following the pop literature closely, this is much reduced. A scientist can keep up with the journal pubs in another field to some degree, but then, they must also do that for their own field and time is limited.

        The notion that it could be odious to carefully take stock of an evolving discipline could only come from poorly-motivated and scientifically unsophisticated or lay persons.

    2. Sorry if that comment was spam generated by my blog. I didn’t write that…

      If that was a real person, sorry for leaving this crazy comment! Big fan, Jerry…

  2. I looked over the Death Valley info — would definitely love to go there but would definitely leave my dog at home. The infor really should ban dogs — the poor creatures naturally want to participate in family adventures, but really, this is one time they SHOULD NOT. I would not wear a fur coat any place that hot & would not bring along a beloved companion who would be unable to shed his/her fur coat. Please, people, use some common sense.

    1. It’s only hot in the summer. In winter you may wish you had a fur coat.

      That said, dogs are fairly restricted in the Nat. Park and must be on leash at all times and are not allowed away from roads/developed areas. Bringing one along thus restricts where you can go. You’re right — best left at the kennel.

  3. Speaking as a European, I too am always drawn to visiting the more torrid parts of the US. More than the temperature, however, it is the landscape that really appeals to me, as it so unlike anything I can experience at home. Glacier Nat’l Park is cute. Yellowstone has nice fauna. Rocky Mountain Nat’l Park is ok. But they all always remind me to some extent of home. I’d rather go to Death Valley or any corner of the southwestern US (Chaco, Sand Dunes, Monument, Grand Canyon, you name it) than anywhere else in the US. I wonder how much my (and those Germans’) affinity to these parts of the US also springs from the common European experience of growing up on a steady diet of Western-themed films and tv shows in the 1960s and 1970s.

    1. Why do so may of the hottest places on earth have a backdrop that looks to be made from rocks formed in desert conditions?

      1. The rocks were mostly not formed in desert conditions, they just happen to be exposed in deserts now. In one of Jerry’s Death Valley pictures you can see the banded sedimentary rocks in the background, probably limestone (at least partially).

        In the general Death Valley region there are lots of limestones and other marine sediments. You can find trilobite fossils in places that look much like Jerry’s pictures. But better yet, there are all sorts of interesting plants restricted to those limestones — alive and thriving today.

  4. Great pics. Mind-boggling why people would want to test their endurance by running a marathon through the valley.

    1. They do it in the winter (c. Feb.) when the temperature is usually quite pleasant there — similar a spring day in Canada or Chicago. But, “I ran a marathon in DV” is still a colorful claim to be able to make.

      1. The Death Valley Marathon is in February (well, according to their website they’re moving it to December, but anyways, winter), but marathons are for wimps (except me; I’m far too wimpy even for a marathon), so they put that one in the wimpy part of the year.

        The really insane running event in Death Valley is the Badwater Ultramarathon. 135 miles, from Badwater to the Mount Whitney trailhead. In July (this year’s is July 16th to the 18th, but registration closes in February, so sign up today!). Yes, people actually do this. And, yes, mind-boggling.

  5. Great post. Being a native Californian (4th gen.) I have had been privileged to visit Death Valley a number of times.

    I have often said that it is one of the most beautiful and awe inspiring places I have ever been. There is something about the silence and desolation one encounters. It makes you feel small, and at the same time keenly aware of your place in the universe.
    A short tale:
    In the May of 1981, I was en-route to Arizona to fill a position with the Forest Service. I planned my route to go through Death Valley. The evening of my arrival I stopped at Stove Pipe Wells. By that time everything was closed, and I was the lone car in that parking lot. I setup my stove for some brew, and was able to find a single radio station, from Boise Idaho!

    As the sun set, the silence permeated everything (I turned the radio off). It was just as the sun was setting that I noticed movement far off toward the Dunes and valley floor. As the animal moved closer I recognized it. A lone coyote. I watched, awe-struck by this creature, as he/she traversed the panorama before me. How could it survive here? Such a noble creature. So beautiful. I was so struck by the moment that I shed tears.

    That scene is indelibly etched in my mind. If you go, and everyone needs to go, don’t be lured to the principal visitor sites, but go experience the silence found most everywhere else.
    Apologies if that was a bit long, but I love this place.

    1. I was there in wintertime about 10 years ago, driving through, and stopped for a walk. There was no wind, and in fact no sound, nothing at all — it’s the only place I can remember ever experiencing absolute quiet. I imagined myself being on the surface of another planet, uninhabited.

    2. Death Valley is also a wonderful place to experience the night. It gets dark enough to be disorienting. And I don’t know if it is possible to see more stars in the sky.

      1. I’m sure the sky is dark and generally cloudless, which is the first requirement for good astronomical viewing.

        But you’ve also got a hell of a lot of atmosphere above you, which means you fail the second requirement.

        So, the view was undoubtedly spectacularly gorgeous…but still not as good as the one from, say, north of Flagstaff on the other side of the San Francisco Peaks. There you’ve got no light pollution, no clouds, no humidity, and very little atmosphere.

        And, thus, even more stars for you to see in the sky.

        To do better than that, you’d have to go to Hawaii, Chile…or into orbit….



  6. This area is called “The Devil’s Golf Course.” The first time I visited them I found a golf ball in the salt, which I kept and christened “The Devil’s Golf Ball.”

    I quit playing years ago, having figured out that the game was “a good walk spoiled,” as the saying goes.

    Still, I’ve got to feel for the poor guy whose ball you found. That’s one horrible lie, anyway you cut it.

    The other players in his foursome must have wondered where he wandered off to. Didn’t happen to see a badly weathered cart, carrying a bag of clubs, and a skeleton dressed in ugly, loud, unmatched clothes, did you?

    1. I recall years ago, when I was still playing, a brand of ball came out called “The Hot One.” Its compression exceeded the specified limits, which was supposed to give it extra distance off the tee, and the PGA banned it from tour play.

      Given its calefacient name and reputation, its blatant illegality, and the extra zip it was alleged to give your long game, I’d make “The Hot One” the odds-on favorite to be the ball of choice for Satan and crew.

      That theory is plainly falsifiable, however, and Jerry’s got the first-hand observational datum to set us straight. I’d kind of like to know, too, if he’d oblige us. Even more so, I’d like to know the story behind the story of how that ball ended up in the middle of Death Valley, which has to be the world’s biggest bunker — though that secret is probably gone for good.

      1. “World’s biggest bunker”? I’m sure they must have park rangers, but it’s not exactly a military compound. They don’t even have booth weenies when you enter the park, just some rather optimistic self-pay stations. In 99.9% of the landscape (i.e., once you get off the main road) you’re generally unlikely to see -anyone-.

        1. I was using “bunker” in the golf-specific sense — meaning a hazard, most frequently a sand-trap, definitely a place you do not want your ball to wind up in; rather “bunker” in the Dick-Cheney-undisclosed-location sense, definitely a place you do not want your governmental decision-making authority to wind up in.

      2. I regularly find golf balls in all sorts of odd places out in the wild in CA. If I’m within sight of a road I expect to find one or two. I’ve wondered if maybe ravens carry them around , though clearly golfers have a habit of practicing their long drives in wildish places where there is little hope of recovery.

      3. I pass several golf courses in my daily commute and often see golf balls in the road. Once, in bumper-to-bumper traffic, I was able to open my car door and scoop one up as I crept along. Im pretty proud of that, but it doesnt compare to Jerry’s story.

  7. Impressive … walked through the Valley of Death without any help from gods and walked away with one of the Devil’s balls. Those turkeys in the bible didn’t dare mess with the Devil’s balls.

    The deserts may be fascinating places but they are also very dangerous; folks need to plan their visits carefully and make sure they get good information if they’re going to go to any places removed from civilization. Hmmm … having said that, I guess there are more silly people killed each year while walking in non-desert mountain ranges for the same reasons people die in the deserts: they don’t have enough water + food, wear the wrong clothes, and get lost.

    1. While the need for proper planning, provisions, &c. Is quite true, sticking to the speed limit would save more lives: The biggest cause of death in Death Valley is single-vehicle roll-overs…


  8. My wife and I were there for he first time in November, when it was cooler than Phoenix (where we were the following week).

    They were already telling us that the record had been reclaimed.

    The only picture I took there that I’ve posted online so far is this one of “Old Dinah” which used to haul the borate from the salt flats.


  9. Never heard of that other place – I learned that Death Valley is the hottest place on the planet from a German textbook while I was a child.

    This post would make a bit more sense to me if it was in meters and degrees Celsius, I must say.

      1. Thanks, but I still wonder why Americans alone still insist on using these. Would it make a lot of sense if my country alone measured temperature in Wurgs and length in Zlatls, and expected everybody else to understand what they are?

        1. Well, to be fair it is just us USians, not all Americans. And it is because we are stupid. What is ironic is that we are dumber and yet we (as a country) insist on sticking with inches and 1/4, 1/8, 1/16 of inches when it is so much easier to make measurements and do calculations with metric. I kid you not, I have more than once been asked by an adult things like, “how many 1/8ths are in an inch, 5 right?” Makes no sense to me.

          1. “Stupid,” while not inaccurate IMHO, doesn’t fully cover it. A considerable number of USians “knows” the metric system to one degree (sorry) or another.
            All scientists do, even folks who just took a bit of science in Middle School, High School or College.
            Immigrant-type folks who lived elsewhere until, say, their teens, find the metric system far more “intuitive.”
            Any purchaser of alcoholic beverages knows “how much” 750 ml is much better than they ever knew (if they’re old enough) “how much” a “fifth” (of a gallon) was/is.
            You don’t have to shop very much in the US before you know that 12 fl oz = about 355 ml and that 1 pound (weight, not sterling) = about 454 grams. That may or may not help you to know that a pound is not quite half a kilogram or a can of soda somewhat more than a third of a liter.

            Yet every time I (a USian) travel abroad, I have to pre-acquaint myself with temperature. Is 25°C room temperature or not? Will I need a sweater, or a coat, at 15°C? I’ve grown (slightly) beyond the F to C formulas to recognizing that 1°F is 1.8°C, and from there, I can usually muddle through with mental arithmetic to at least the coat vs. sweater stage.


            1. You are right, I was just being whimsical. I agree that the real issue is the pain of transitioning from standard to metric for the extant adults that were raised to have an intuitive feel for standard units, but not metric units. Still, it shouldn’t be that hard, everyone else has done it already.

              A funny thing I noticed when I was younger was that the few pot head friends I had were whizzes at using standard and or metric and converting nearly instantly between the two. Go Figure.

              Talking of funny, I have always thought it funny when someone from the British Isles makes comments similar to Alex SL’s. Which happens pretty frequently. I always want to ask, “you do know … right?” I wonder if Alex SL is from the British Isles?

              1. While Britain officially converted to the metric system ages ago, I believe the UK still uses miles for distances and speeds.

                Here in New Zealand, they converted to metric in 1976 (I say ‘they’ because I didn’t. I still mentally convert all speed and distance signs into English units. I have no trouble with converting distances and weights, I’d make no criticism whichever they’re expressed in, my beef is with some of the daffier SI units – I have no trouble visualising a psi or a kg/sq. cm but a Newton or a Pascal? what the heck are they?)

    1. I converted the important temperatures to centigrade (did you miss that)?, but must I really be subjected to this tirade about our “stupidity” for not using the metric system.

      The post was about Death Valley, for crying out loud, and the important highs I put in centrigrade. Saying that the post “would make more sense” if I converted everything is really a gratuitous remark, and borders on the offensive.

  10. Indeed that was one of the very best spring wildflowers I’ve seen. We followed the blooms on the Internet and made six week-end trips that year. And yes, the geology is as interesting as the biology,

  11. The golf ball: There’s a species of parasite on the landscape that feels obliged to knock a golf ball into any picturesque setting that it encounters.

  12. My family would spend weeks upon end in Death Valley when I was a young boy. It was always fascinating. Also, I seem to recall that the lowest place in North America is in Death Valley, and the highest in the 48 contiguous states is right next door, Mt. Whitney, just up the hill from Owens Valley. Your pics and post really brought back those good old memories! Thanks.

  13. Jerry, I have to ask: Just how do you track the distance a fly covers in a night? Itty, bitty radio trackers? Or do you follow the same fly through death valley all night, re-enacting a grueling 16 mile Benny Hill sketch?

    1. You dust the flies lightly with finely powdered fluorescent dust (the kind they use to make paint for black-light posters), and then let them clean themselves off overnight. They can remove all the dust except for a few particles on the bottom of the thorax, where they can’t reach. Then you put every fly you collect under a UV light, and the marked one fluoresce. To do these studies, you dust around a million flies (!) and then release them the next evening. At remote locations (where people haven’t contacted the dust), they collect flies the next day after release and bring them to our field lab, where they are inspected. We found dusted flies up to 16 km from the release site the next morning after release!

      1. Brilliant!

        Incidentally, RFID tags are getting smaller and smaller. I’ll bet you a cup of coffee that one of your students will some day be dusting flies with RFID tags rather than fluorescent powder.


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