Scott Thybony's Canyon Commentary: Chasing Heat

Sep 1, 2020

The Southwest has been in the grips of an intense heatwave this summer, breaking records and setting new ones for high temperatures and lack of rain. In mid-August, the highest temperature ever reliably recorded on Earth was in Death Valley, California at 131 degrees. KNAU Commentator Scott Thybony had to see for himself what that kind of heat was like. So, he headed out to the hottest place on Earth and has this Canyon Commentary for us.

Flagstaff-based writer Scott Thybony at Death Valley, CA on August 16, 2020...the hottest place recorded on Earth
Credit Scott Thybony


A two-lane highway descends to Furnace Creek in Death Valley National Park, 190 feet below sea level.  Half a dozen people wait outside the visitor center when I arrive at 2:15.  They are keeping watch next to a large digital thermometer, hoping to catch the moment it tops yesterday’s world record. 

On August 16, 2020, Death Valley recorded an extreme temperature of 130 degrees.  If verified, it will break the record for the highest, reliably measured temperature on earth.  An hour after learning about the possibility of an even higher temperature today, I was driving west across Northern Arizona on I-40.  My excuse was to see what sorts of crazies would show up in the middle of the summer at the hottest place on earth.  Then I realized I already knew.

Most visitors wait in the shade, but when the temperature jumps to 129 degrees they dash out to take photos next to the thermometer.  Standing with me, a photographer from Alaska has already met his goal.  “I’ve been in 78 degrees below zero,” he tells me, “and only needed near-record heat to be able to say I’ve experienced a 200-degree range of the earth’s temperature.”  Then he asks, “How come more people aren’t out here?  We have a chance of being in the hottest place on the planet on the hottest day ever recorded.”  That’s enough reason, I tell him, for most people not to come.

By 3:00 a dozen visitors have gathered, and in a pandemic year half keep their masks on even in the brutal heat.  One of them, a twelve-year old girl, stands drained of energy with her shoulders slumped and a bag of ice on her head.  I’m not surprised since the ground temperature in the surrounding desert has been measured at 200 degrees, hot enough to melt shoes.

As we wait, a man tells me he drove in from Southern California after hearing about the possibility of record-breaking heat.  He works from home due to the coronavirus shutdown, and after putting in two hours this morning he said, “Screw it, the boss isn’t looking!”  He closed his computer and took off for Death Valley.  Another guy explains why he came.  His co-workers threw a party when he retired and gave him a Yeti bucket as a farewell gift, containing a bucket list they had worked up.  “One suggestion,” he says, “was to travel to the hottest place on earth on the hottest day.  And here I am!”

A park ranger steps outside in regulation uniform with her face covered by a mask.  Approaching her, a couple wants to know if it’s really true about being able to fry an egg on the sidewalk.  “Please don’t,” she answers.  “It’s always such a mess to clean up.”

A television crew rolls in at 3:30, close to yesterday’s peak heat.  The spectators now number about two dozen.  When the thermometer jumps to 130 degrees, everyone thinks we’ve tied the record.  But a discrepancy between the Fahrenheit and Celsius readings indicates the thermometer itself has begun to fry.  Rangers keep the official thermometer sealed inside a shed, only opened twice a day.

Due to the heat’s intensity, I’ve kept my iPhone tucked into a pocket out of the direct sunlight.  But from 3:00 on, it shuts down every ten minutes or so with a temperature warning message.  I try splashing water on it the way I would treat a heat stroke victim, but it remains comatose.  The only way I can revive the phone is by holding it next to the air conditioning back in the car.

At 4:00 the thermometer reads 132 degrees, peak heat for the day.  Within a few minutes it begins backing down the scale, and the heat chasers disperse.  Later, the National Weather Service posts a bulletin.  “We ‘only’ got to 127 degrees today at Death Valley, CA,” it reads.  “This breaks the previous daily record of 124 degrees set in 2013.”

Despite a temperature of only 127 degrees, I’ll take it.