Heat wave scorches Death Valley, America’s hottest of the hot

A dome of extreme hot weather is baking much of the West, but whether or not the moment is historic will be up to the thermometer at Death Valley’s Furnace Creek, where the world’s hottest temperature – 134 degrees – was recorded in 1913.

Chris Carlson/AP
The thermometer at the Furnace Creek resort is already at 120 degrees before noon in Death Valley National Park in Furnace Creek, Calif. Excessive heat warnings will continue for much of the Desert Southwest as building high pressure triggers major warming in eastern California, Nevada, and Arizona.

Potential record temperatures are inching up across the American West as a high pressure dome slides across gauzy skylines and trembling desert canyons. But only one place can determine whether a new world heat record will be set this weekend: Death Valley, Calif.

Death Valley is a seared moon landscape that periodically blooms with fields of wildflowers. A thermometer near Furnace Creek recorded a 134 degree day in o July 10, 1913, which remains the hottest recorded air temperature on planet earth.

As heat warnings reverberate on Saturday from Phoenix to Las Vegas and hospitals gear up for a spike in heat exhaustion victims and perhaps worse, weather watchers are watching to see whether this heat wave breaks any records.

The heat wave is "a huge one," National Weather Service specialist Stuart Seto said, according to the AP. "We haven't seen one like this for several years, probably the mid- to late 2000s."

Phoenix was forecast to hit nearly 120 on Saturday. The record in that part of the world, Arizona’s Valley of the Sun, is 122.

Energy-sapping heat is expected to spread across Idaho, Wyoming, and Utah, potentially to dangerous levels. Las Vegas may see 117 degrees this weekend, which would mark only the third time the Nevada gambling capital got so hot. An average of 658 Americans die from heat-related causes every year, far more than are hurt or killed by tornadoes.

"This is the hottest time of the year, but the temperatures that we'll be looking at for Friday through Sunday, they'll be toward the top," weather service meteorologist Mark O'Malley tells the AP. "It's going to be baking hot across much of the entire West."

Forecasters say the temperature in Death Valley, meanwhile, could inch to 130, at least close to one of the earth’s most extreme weather moments. The world in 1913 was far less polluted and industry, cars, and planes emitted a fraction of modern-day carbon emissions, which many earth scientists today blame for climate change.

At any rate, Death Valley has been pretty hot in recent years. On July 12, 2012, nighttime temperatures dropped to only 107 degrees after a 128 degree day, tying a world record for highest daily low temperature set a few days earlier in Oman. That same day, the 24-hour mean temperature in Death Valley clocked in at 117.5 degrees. That 24-hour period was the hottest in recorded world history.

A federally protected subtropical desert and once a supplier of gold, silver and borax, Death Valley has a unique mix of landscape and weather that create what Chris Carlson, an AP photographer, described as “unrelenting heat so bad it makes my eyes hurt, as if someone is blowing a hair dryer in my face.”

As air rises from the near plant-less valley floor, it cools as it gains elevation, eventually dropping back to the valley floor again, denser than before. As superheated localized air masses thus circulate, Death Valley becomes a convection oven.

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