News Column

Death Valley Draws Crowds for Centennial of Hottest Day

July 10, 2013

Barbara Munker, dpa

Is it cause to celebrate that temperatures once reached 56.7 degrees celsius (134.06 degrees Fahrenheit) in one of the hottest places on Earth?

The tourists flocking to Death Valley on Wednesday, the 100th anniversary of the record scorcher, seem to think so. And Las Vegas-based meteorologist Dan Berca will be on hand to help out.

Death Valley was a furnace on July 10, 1913, when temperatures soared to 56.7 degrees. Compared to that, the 48.9 degrees (120.02 F) expected on Wednesday, according to California weather forecasts, constitute a cold snap.

Even so, it will be quite warm.

"It's like walking into a very hot and very dry oven," is the way Las Vegas-based meteorologist Dan Berca describes the sensation he knows all too well.

Berca, who works for the National Weather Service, is one of many who will be out dishing out advice, water and general information to tourists come to mark the event by watching the mercury climb to its maximum on that day.

The Death Valley Visitors Centre in Furnace Creek is on hand to offer fully air-conditioned relief.

In 1913 there was as yet no national park to draw the almost 1 million tourists who visit annually. The weather station was sited then on the Greenland Ranch, a small farm run for the benefit of borax miners in the area.

The mercury rose steadily at the time to record highs above 51.7 degrees over a period of 10 days, reaching a peak on July 10, when dry winds heated the air to "super hot," as Death Valley National Park ranger Alan Van Valkenburg says.

Now 54, he has been working at the park for more than 20 years.

Death Valley has been the official record holder only since September 2012, when the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) in Geneva threw out an even higher reading recorded at Aziziya in Libya.

A temperature of 58 degrees was recorded there in 1922 by an inexperienced observer using obsolete equipment, leading the WMO to set the record straight in favour of Death Valley.

The record is linked to a tragedy. On that day a man and his driver were on the road in the vicinity when their car broke down. The owner died in the extreme heat, the driver was rescued in time.

Fifteen people have died from the effects of the heat in the park since 1976, including an 11-year-old boy who died five days after the car he was travelling broke down in 2009. His mother only barely survived.

In July 1996 a family from Germany disappeared in the desert. Their hired car was found months later with the tyres flat, and only years later were their bones found some distance away.

A short walk here can spell death, Van Valkenburg warns. Recently on June 30, when the mercury hit 53.9 degrees, a hiker almost died in the dunes. The temperature was a record for the month of June.

Tourists from Europe have gained a reputation for "crazy" behaviour, in the view of the ranger, travelling through the valley deliberately during the hottest months.

Some don Star Wars outfits to pose next to the thermometer for photographs to take home. "I thought they were going to die," Van Valkenburg says.

But he understands tourist interest in the sand and stone desert stretching over 240 kilometres, pointing out the Badwater Basin, at 86 metres below sea level the lowest point in North America as one attraction.

The bare mountain chains and shimmering heat over the dunes under a cloudless sky, which provides just 35 millimetres of precipitation a year, are other draw cards.

"I hate the summers, but the winters are great," Van Valkenburg says with a smile. He says he remains "in awe" at the number of visitors choosing to travel through the valley in the hottest month of July.

The winters are considerably cooler. The lowest temperature ever recorded was minus 9.4 degrees (15.08 F) - paradoxically measured in 1913, but in January of that year.

Source: Copyright 2013 dpa Deutsche Presse-Agentur GmbH

Story Tools Facebook Linkedin Twitter RSS Feed Email Alerts & Newsletters