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Published August 12, 2012, 12:00 AM

Going to extremes

WDAY meteorologist heads to Death Valley seeking highs in the 120s, and California desert doesn’t disappoint
Fargo - “Why would anyone go to Death Valley in the July?” is the question most often asked by friends and family when they heard about my most recent vacation.

By: By John Wheeler, Forum Communications Co.

Fargo - “Why would anyone go to Death Valley in the July?” is the question most often asked by friends and family when they heard about my most recent vacation.

“Because, that is when it is really hot,” is the only and obvious answer my son Cameron and I could provide.

Death Valley is the hottest place in the Western Hemisphere, and almost the hottest place on Earth.

As a meteorologist in Fargo for the past 27 years, weather extremes have become almost a routine. In the middle of the Great Plains there are few barriers to the wind, so we get a wild variety of weather.

And to a meteorologist, experiencing these extremes is professionally interesting. But Fargo is clearly not one of the world’s hotter places. The hottest day I experienced here was 106 in the drought summer of 1988.

A few years before, on a family trip when I was in college, I observed an unofficial 113 degrees on a front porch thermometer in Terlingua, Texas. But with careful planning and a little bit of luck, a trip to Death Valley in July could yield a temperature into the 120s. And so we made our plans.

The trip would be a long one, in part because our first destination was a niece’s wedding in eastern Iowa. From there, we headed west across the Great Plains toward the great deserts of the American Southwest. Hot weather was an underlying theme to each day due to the ongoing central U.S. drought and heat wave. Eight of the 13 days of our travels, we experienced temperatures of at least 100 degrees.

But as we descended into Death Valley during the early afternoon of July 20, the heat became more than just an underlying theme. It became a dominant force. The thermometer in the car, while certainly unofficial, reflected the relationship between temperature and elevation. The lower we went, the hotter it became.

As we first approached Badwater Basin, a flat, salt-covered plain covering the valley’s lowest elevations, the temperature rose into the upper 110s, peaking briefly at 121.

Frequently, we would venture out of the car to take short hikes out into the salt flats, sand dunes or colorful piles of boulders at the edge of the valley. There was a faint smell permeating the entire place. It smelled burnt. Not singed like meat on a grill; the smell was more like an overheated appliance.

As hot as it was, a little more humidity would have been welcome. When we took short hikes, we would sweat, but the water would immediately evaporate and our clothes didn’t become wet.

At particular points of interest, we would get out and mingle with other tourists. Interestingly, most of the summer visitors to Death Valley are Europeans. We noticed a high percentage of Germans. Americans, apparently prefer to visit Death Valley during fall, winter or spring. Perhaps due to a heightened sense of curiosity or adventure, the Europeans prefer to experience the place at its finest. Most of these world travelers were able to speak enough English for small talk, and we soon became amused by so many people speaking in so many different accents all saying the same line, “It is hot today.”

After dinner at our hotel, we went for a swim in the hotel’s outdoor pool. The water was warm, but refreshing. Getting out, we decided to dry ourselves in the air. There was a slight breeze. We dried in seconds, and soon the air felt hot again.

An hour and a half after sunset, we drove a few miles away to look at the night sky. With no moon, the dry, desert air offered clarity that is impossible elsewhere. We saw the Milky Way in full brilliance and countless shooting stars. After an hour, our eyes and throats burning from the dry heat, we drove back to the hotel. It was still 112 degrees.

The following morning, we decided to hike into a nearby field of sand dunes before breakfast. The early sun created long, shadows over the dunes. Even though it was early, the heat was already formidable. And that same burnt-appliance smell was there again.

During the midday hours, we drove up a road with a 13 percent incline to the top of Dante’s View, where we were able to look almost exactly 1 mile straight down below us to Badwater Basin. The air seemed hazy, but this was due to the great distances we were able to see from this vantage. We found locations nearly 100 miles away on the valley floor we had visited the previous day.

The trip was a success, and the heat certainly didn’t disappoint. For the record, the high temperature at Furnace Creek that first day was 119 degrees. The low the following morning was 90. And the high the following day was 121.

Death Valley’s weather

The average high temperature in July is 116 degrees. On July 10, 1913, it was 134, the hottest reliably measured temperature in the Western Hemisphere. That reading is just two degrees off the world record of 136 set in Libya in 1922.

Death Valley is hot because it is dry. It is several mountain ranges removed from any moisture source, and each range extracts significant amounts of available moisture from any weather system. By the time air gets to Death Valley it’s remarkably moisture-free.

During summer, early morning relative humidity is often around 10 to 20 percent. Afternoon humidity is usually less than 5 percent. Average annual rainfall is less than two inches. So far in 2012, the weather station at Furnace Creek has received just 0.31 inches of rain.

With so little moisture, vegetation is sparse. Except around a few oases near springs, there is no grass, no sage, and hardly any cactus. Sand and wildly colored rocks make up the surface; absorbing the intense sunlight and radiating that heat into the air.

The other reason Death Valley is so hot is that, at 282 feet below sea level, it is the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere. At such a negative altitude, the weight of air pressure is much greater, and the additional pressure heats the air significantly. The geological term for such a low place is a graben, or a low spot caused by parallel faults in the Earth moving away from each other, causing the land in between to sink.

Death Valley is oriented roughly north to south. The valley is around a hundred miles long, but only about 10 miles wide. The aptly named Dante’s View rises to 5,475 feet immediately to the east while Telescope Peak reaches a height of 11,049 feet on the western side. The steep, rocky sides of these mountain walls absorb the intense heat through the day, so even as the coolest air settles to the lower elevations at night, it remains very hot. Summertime nighttime lows are usually in the 80s or 90s and sometimes fail to drop below 100 degrees.

– John Wheeler

Wheeler is the chief meteorologist for WDAY and WDAZ