It wasn't the first time we left Seal Beach, outside Los Angeles, for long road trips through California and other states in the American West.
This time, however, Aunt Lily and Uncle Guy – that's how we got used to treating these family members from across the world – seemed more restless than usual and repeated the same request over and over again: “Don't forget to call, OK ? At least when they get to the hotels. See if you don't forget!"
We resisted curiosity for some time. It's just when we're about to ask why we're so worried that Uncle Guy shows up with six or seven pallets of water bottles to put in the trunk and we solve the mystery: Death Valley!
They were afraid of Death Valley and that we wouldn't resist it.
We do our best to reassure the hosts. As soon as the mission seems accomplished, we head out onto the asphalt of Orange County, aimed at the depths of California.
Toward the Dantesque Depths of California
We traveled hundreds of miles off Highway 15, largely through the Mojave Desert. We passed the lost city in the nothingness of Barstow. Shortly thereafter, we cut north.
As we complete the final miles of the route on Highway 190, the temperature visibly rises. The car's phosphor-green digital thermometer only reports it in Fahrenheit and it's with surprising leaps on this scale that we see how the furnace intensifies on the outside: 103F … 107F … 109F…
By the time we reach Dante's View, the heat is already 47.2º (117F) and we're still well above the salt-covered depression sunk by consecutive prehistoric earthquakes at the foot of the Panamint mountain range.
BadWater Basin is part of that faraway view. Marks the deepest point in North America.
There, some water springs to the surface from the subsoil, but the salinization is such that, however much thirsty mule caravans have wanted to drink throughout the history of the West, that spring only served as a salvation for intrepid algae, insects and snails that continue to colonize it.
too hot to bear
The day progresses and is cooked by solar radiation. To prevent the same from happening to us, we return to the interior of the car's greenhouse and, while inverting towards the residential heart of the valley, we turn on the air conditioning at its maximum strength.
Along the way, we still detour to take a look at the Natural Bridge Canyon and the steep but insignificant route to the first shadow afforded by the canyon proves to be a kind of torture inflicted by the burning, dry air in the lungs.
We drive along the colorful slopes of Artist Drive when we notice that the sun is already down. It occurs to us that we'd better recover from exhaustion in the refrigerated environment of Furnace Creek, before embarking on new forays.
A bar will secure us and other visitors with sprinklers the full length of its arch. Inside, we find cold lemonade and the drink complements that merciful treatment.
Timbisha's Resilient Native-Dwellers
For other reasons that only they and their gods will be aware of, the Timbisha Indians have inhabited Death Valley and the Furnace Creek oasis for centuries, and the tribe even has a reserve in the area.
There are, today, only 15 or 16 elements, but they form the majority of the local population, which has decreased to 24 people. Once upon a time, the community was far more significant and provided the artisans and workers who helped erect the Fred Harvey company's original resort buildings as well as the park infrastructure.
Long before that, other companies had explored the geological riches of the valley, such as the Pacific Coast Borax Company, which, using 20 pairs of mules, extracted the mineral and transported it across the Mojave desert to sell to chemical companies and produce the ore. his then famous Boraxo soap.
At the time, the place that hosted the facilities was called Greenland Ranch, a name that never eluded the workers, massacred by the sun day after day.
58th: Too Hot to Be True
1913 turned out to be an extraordinary weather year, with much more intense heat than usual. On July 10, the meteorological station of the village recorded 56.7º.
In that same month, a sequence of 5 days with a maximum of 54º or higher had been verified and, coincidence or not, on January 8th, Death Valley had experienced its lowest winter temperature: -10º. The positive record did not take long to have competition.
Since 1919, the Italian military stationed at a base located 55 km south of Tripoli, carried out extreme temperature measurements. Three years later, the authorities reported having obtained a 58th in Al-Aziziyah, on September 13, 1922.
This value has gained widespread acceptance of the highest temperature in the world, recorded under standard conditions. The record is still found in countless geographical works and school textbooks, but it has encountered many opponents over time.
Amilcare Fantoli and Al-Azizyah's Mismeasurement
One of them, the Italian physicist Amilcare Fantoli, analyzed the conditions under which the measurement had been carried out. He questioned them in several dedicated articles and clarified in volume 18 of the Rivista di Meteorologia Aeronautica, 1958: “in 1922, we could not help but believe in the number shown, also explicitly confirmed via radio, by the military located in El-Aziz, ( another one of Al-Azizyah's graphics) that had remained isolated for some time for strategic reasons and, shortly afterwards, by observing the record sheets… when it was possible to see these data… “.
After exhaustively describing the instruments and procedures used in the measurement, Fantoli opined that “the maximum extreme temperature would have been only 56°C”.
A scene worn out by the rare but abrasive rains that hit Death Valley from time to time.
Last September 17th, OMM – the United Nations meteorological agency – communicated the result of an investigation carried out in 2010 and 2011 by a panel of experts from Libya, Italy, Spain, Egyptians, French, Moroccans, Argentines, North -Americans and British who concluded that there were five distinct problems with the measurement of Al-Azizyah.
Miscellaneous Flaws and the Old Record's Geographical Improbability
The first thing to consider was the problematic instrumentation: the station's usual thermometer had recently been damaged and was replaced by a conventional one similar to those used in greenhouses. It was then pointed out to a more than likely inexperienced observer who the OMM concluded to have made the measurement based on the opposite end of the cylinder inside the thermometer.
It was also noted the fact that “the measuring point is placed on an asphalt-like material not representative of the native desert soil and, finally, “the poor equivalence of that extreme temperature compared to those recorded in nearby locations and poor temperature equivalence records registered in the same place”.
Notwithstanding the hot Ghibli winds, which blow from the heart of the Sahara Desert over the Jabal Nafusah mountains and are warmed as they descend from the north-facing slopes, a distance from Al-Azizyah to the Mediterranean Sea did not seem to allow such an extreme temperature.
When checking the data from surrounding places for that date – Tripoli, Sidi Mesri, Homs, Zuara Marina, among others – all were far below expectations, in some cases as much as 20º.
99 years later, a Death Valley hotter than ever
By way of final condemnation, the experts concluded that the 1922 measurement would have been about 7 degrees centigrade higher than the real value. The agency recently announced its invalidation and the rehabilitation of the 1913 Greenland Ranch record.
The measure was long overdue and commented on. In November 2010, the Daily Telegraph, for example, had already published an ironic article with the title “Broken Thermometer led to a record breaker".
The few inhabitants of Death Valley and the USA, in general, received the news with great pleasure. The title of the hottest place carries the same weight to meteorologists as that of Mount Everest does to geographers.
Its reconquest should bring increased notoriety and many more intrigued outsiders who, like us, visit it in the middle of the summer for the privilege of proving its harsh climate reality. But in the past, some visitors did not understand or respect it properly. It was dear to them.
The Martian View from Zabriskie Point
We lack the patience to wait for it to cool down. Furnace Creek and Death Valley are still scalding when we leave the bar and get back behind the wheel.
We point to the famous Zabriskie Point, a section of the Amargosa Range that was once submerged by the prehistoric lake of Furnace Creek that was nicknamed Christian Brevoort Zabriskie, vice president and manager of the Pacific Coast Borax Company.
From the top of the viewpoint, you can see the trails that cross the Badlands extraterrestrial surface. The course's winding lines invite adventure, but a warning from Death Valley National Park warns of the risks involved and does not shy away from describing one of the past tragedies to demobilize the most unwary.
Ingrid and Gerhard Jonas: Death in the Valley. Two.
Only a few days had elapsed from Ingrid and Gerhard Jonas's North American vacation when they arrived in Death Valley. The guide they used described the eccentricity of the scenery between the Golden Canyon and Zabriskie Point. Gerhard was used to much longer walks.
Badly advised by the apparent insignificance of the 4.8km route and the proximity to the village of Furnace Creek, he dismissed the fact that it was June and it was already midday, that the temperature was 37º and would increase a lot. It was also wrong to conclude that less than a liter of water would be enough to stay hydrated.
They agreed that Ingrid would drive to the other end of the route and they would meet at Zabriskie Point, from where she could even watch him approaching in the colorful landscape.
Three hours later, Ingrid saw no sign of her husband. He warned the park rangers and they started a search under a temperature of 45°C. A brief flyover of the service plane revealed an unconscious Gerhard in the lower lands of Gower Gulch. The rangers caught up with him an hour and a half after the alert.
He had succumbed to heatstroke and exhaustion just 5 hours after leaving his wife. Death Valley lived up to its name and claimed a new victim. Since the mid-90s there have been at least twelve. Out of curiosity, the careless use of GPS's that rented vehicles are equipped with contributed to some of the cases.
The Extreme and Eccentric Profile of Death Valley
In terms of geology and geography, Death Valley justifies both record-breaking temperatures and some apprehension and fear. No other exhibits such a radical combination of depth and morphology, the main reason for extreme summer temperatures.
Death Valley forms a long, tight basin located 85 meters below sea level. Although depressing, it is enclosed by imminent steep mountains and more distant ones, with obvious peaks at Mount Telescope (3367 m) – the most prominent in the Panamint range – and at Mount Whitney (4.421m), this, the highest elevation in the States Contiguous United, just 136 km away.
There are four mountain ranges that retain the clouds coming from the Pacific Ocean. The same ones that force them to rise and unload in the form of rain or snow, still on their western slopes. Those coming from the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico, in particular, are too far away to be able to get there with significant frequency.
Accordingly, the air over Death Valley is dry and thin, and its sparse vegetation invites the sun to warm the desert's surface. The heat radiating from the rocks and soil rises but is trapped between the surrounding slopes and is forced down.
Downward air pockets are only slightly warmer than the surrounding air. As they return to the ground, the low atmospheric pressure puts them under a strong compression and heats up even more than at the source.
Death Valley's Panoply of Recording Temperatures
From June to October, the repetition of this process results in the highest atmospheric temperatures on the face of the Earth, a phenomenon that can drag on with no apparent end. In 2001, the Death Valley Summer had 154 consecutive days with highs above 37º.
In 1996, it was forty days above the 48th and one hundred and five over 43rd. On the morning of the 12th of July, Death Valley beat two other not-so-happy but relevant records. Just before sunrise, Furnace Creek's thermometer had dropped from a daytime high of 53.3° to a modicum of 41.7°.
Thus, the highest minimum temperature on the face of the Earth and its highest average temperature in 24 hours were recorded: 47.5º.
On the date we explore it, instead, the late afternoon provides a fairly acceptable respite that we take advantage of to examine other nooks and crannies: the small bus station at Stovepipe Wells, the ruins of the Harmony Borax Works, the Mustard Canyon, and the expansions of dunes of Mesquite and Eureka.
However, the big star falls behind the Panamint mountain range. Shadow sets in, then twilight and then darkness. Despite the pseudo-coolness of the night, Death Valley was, once again, the hottest place on the planet's surface.