Friday, July 14, 2017

An Excursion In The World Of The Weather Geeks Produces This News: "If You Think It's Hot Now, Just Wait...."

As we have entered the Dog Days Of Summer, what better contribution to this blog than an exploration of weather geekdom in terms of extreme temperature records that we have come to know and love? William Langewiesche — Vanity Fair's international correspondent — introduces a pair of weather geeks with a global perspective — Christopher Burt and Maximiliano (Max) Herrera. If this is (fair & balanced) climatology in the 21st century, so be it.

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How Extreme Heat Could Leave Swaths Of The Planet Uninhabitable
By William Langewiesche

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Late last July, a swath of the Middle East from Saudi Arabia across Kuwait to Iraq and Iran was hit by a heat wave. As usual, it was caused by a powerful high-pressure dome that parked overhead, compressing and heating the upper atmosphere, limiting convection, and trapping the lower atmosphere below it even as the desert floor heated the air from the ground up. “Heat waves” are relative affairs—technically, they are merely multi-day deviations from whatever the local norms happen to be. They don’t count for much in places like Denmark. The Middle East is not as milquetoasty as that. In Kuwait, for instance, the daily average maximum temperature in July is around 112 degrees, a level that would trigger urgent warnings in the United States but that in Kuwait is simply the expected weather.

The heat wave last July was different. The month started hellishly enough. At an automated weather station in a desert wasteland called Mitribah, in the country’s uninhabited North, the maximum temperature hovered around 114 degrees. Then the numbers started to climb, passing through 120 degrees on the 14th, topping 124 degrees on the 19th, and peaking at 129.2 degrees in the midafternoon of July 21, 2016. That temperature exactly matched the highest reliably measured air temperature in history—129.2 degrees, recorded on July 1, 2013, in Death Valley, USA. The Mitribah report made news around the world because of concerns about global warming, though no single temperature demonstrates much, and it is actually the accelerating rise of pre-dawn minimums, rather than the slower rise of midafternoon maximums, that is affecting global temperature averages more rapidly than scientists had anticipated just a few years ago.

To get this out of the way: among weather experts there is universal acceptance that global warming is a fact and that it is caused by human enterprise. As a result, dangerous heat waves are hitting with ever greater severity. In June, the National Weather Service warned of record-shattering heat in the American Southwest that it went so far as to label “crazy.” This is a trend that will continue worldwide, with lethal consequences, especially for the young, the old, outdoor workers, and the poor. Forget about hurricanes and blizzards, cyclones and floods: heat waves already cause by far the largest number of weather-related deaths—many thousands every year—and they are to be feared. Virtually no weather expert thinks otherwise. Nonetheless, when it comes to the 129.2 degrees recorded at Mitribah, the immediate regret within a subculture of observers is that the temperature did not rise higher. One of them, the renowned weather historian Christopher Burt, told me, “It came very close to breaking the record—just a tenth of a degree. That drives some people nuts!” Burt is 62. He writes for the Web site Weather Underground and is the author of a best-selling guide and record book titled Extreme Weather (2007). He lives in the hills of Oakland, California, in a climate so benign that it becomes annoying. About the search for extremes, he said, “There is so much minutiae. I start to burn out on it sometimes. To give you some idea: the National Weather Service uses Fahrenheit and rounds off to the nearest degree. For the 129.2 in Death Valley, we have a photograph of the thermometer that clearly shows it, but officially the high was rounded down to 129 degrees. The Kuwaitis measure temperatures on the Celsius scale to the nearest tenth of a degree. That means that Mitribah, which was officially 54.0 Celsius, converted to 129.2 degrees Fahrenheit. So officially it beat Death Valley, even though we know that Death Valley matched.” He shook his head. He said, “Now what are you going to do? And actually this was the fifth time Death Valley went to an official 129 degrees. The four previous times no one took a picture of the thermometers—they could have been at 129.4. We don’t know.”


Well, yes, we all know it’s true: once you go down the rabbit hole of accuracy, it is easy to lose yourself. A tenth of a degree here, a tenth of a degree there. Burt is a worldly man. He understands that the pursuit of accuracy, though necessary, can become an obsession, and that self-restraint is needed to keep larger truths in mind. No one lives in Mitribah, and it is unlikely that during the July heat wave anyone passed through. But merely 50 miles away lies Basra, Iraq, a city of more than 2.5 million people, a fifth of whom live on less than two dollars a day, and all of whom suffer from frequent power outages, particularly during heat waves. As in the rest of the overheated world, air-conditioning is out of reach for a large part of the population, and even traditional architecture offers little relief. Last July 22, one day after the Mitribah record, the temperature in Basra peaked at an atrocious 128.9 degrees. The extreme heat was not limited to just that one day: maximum temperatures had begun to rise above 100 degrees in early May, were exceeding 110 degrees by early June, and began regularly exceeding 120 degrees by the end of the month. Moreover, after the peak in July, the extremes continued relentlessly for all of August and September. Nighttime temperatures were cooler, but not much—typically they remained above a hundred until a few hours before dawn. It is known that periods of nighttime relief help to mitigate the peaks. Lack of them greatly increases the stress. The area of suffering was huge. Because of access to air-conditioning, it did not include wealthy Saudi Arabia or Kuwait, but it spread as far as Baghdad and into Iran. According to The Wall Street Journal, a Shiite cleric in Najaf claimed that Iraq and all of Islam were under attack by American electromagnetic weapons. Some Iraqi state meteorologists agreed that this was possible. Back in Oakland, at the center of the plot, Christopher Burt avoided the subject but could not help showing me the numbers. He said, “Look at this! Day after day after day! How can people survive these conditions?”

The short answer is that many people cannot. The human body sheds its internal heat and cools itself mostly through perspiration and evaporation, but only up to a point. There is no one temperature that defines the upper limit of safety, because the critical measure depends on humidity, physical activity, acclimatization, health, personal physiology, and—in war zones—such necessities as body armor. I know from travels in North Africa and the Middle East, as well as a week once spent in Yuma, Arizona, that at 110 degrees merely breathing begins to hurt. If people drink copiously, they can continue to function as long as the air is dry and the nights cool off. At 120 degrees, it is a different matter.


Years ago, when reporting from the Sahara in July, I decided to visit an Algerian oasis called Adrar, which has a local reputation for being one of the hottest towns in one of the hottest regions on earth. I had been visiting the desert for years and had seen some extremes but never the worst heat. I thought I should experience it. That was a mistake. I traveled to Adrar on a weekly regional flight in an old Air Algérie turboprop and arrived during a heat wave. The atmosphere was nearly opaque with suspended dust for the final 10,000 feet of descent. It was midafternoon. Stepping through the airplane’s door, I came under a shocking assault. In Adrar, the official air temperature—in the shade, at the standard shoulder height above the ground—was 119 degrees. On the airport tarmac, in direct sunlight, the air was obviously much hotter, but meaningless to measure. In town, there was a single, reinforced-concrete hotel with air-conditioning, and the air-conditioning had long since broken down. Given enough time, you could have baked a chicken in my room. A clerk recommended that I sleep on the roof, and I did, or tried to, in temperatures that did not settle below 100 degrees until the wee hours. At dawn, during the first, haunting call to prayer, the concrete roof was still warm to the touch. Then came the sun again. After an early-morning flurry of activity, the streets went dead as the residents sought shade to wait out the day. That night and the following one I abandoned the hotel roof and slept in a date-palm grove, where at least the dirt was cool at dawn. Around the fourth day I sensed that this was no longer just an uncomfortable experience but potentially a lethal one—it was that extreme. Cutting short the visit, I escaped by taking a succession of communal taxis across five days to the balminess of Tunis, on the Mediterranean Sea.

I did not know it at the time, but the danger was heatstroke—a rise in body temperature beyond 104 degrees, leading to a life-threatening collapse of basic biophysical functions that can take many forms. I was probably not much at risk, because I was healthy and able to lie low, but there are no guarantees. The human body is an elaborate heat exchanger, constantly adjusting itself to maintain a narrow core temperature between about 98 and 100 degrees by balancing heat gain with heat loss through the skin. In cold weather, where loss of heat is due to conduction (contact with the ground) and convection (contact with the air), you simply bundle up in insulating footwear and clothes. This is why the “windchill” numbers pushed on TV have little value; they apply to the potential for frostbite on exposed skin but not to the risk of dangerously low body temperatures, a condition known as hypothermia. People die of the cold, but in the modern world only because they fall into water or go driving off into a blizzard without carrying adequate emergency supplies. Heat waves are something else. As the air warms up, the skin’s convective heat-shedding capacity weakens and then reverses. Depending on the level of internal heat being generated metabolically, there comes an air temperature where evaporative cooling—sweating—can no longer keep up, and body temperatures begin to climb out of control.

The point at which this starts is largely dependent on humidity. In the United States, the National Weather Service publishes a heat index that takes humidity into account, producing “apparent temperatures” as they are felt, and attaching four color-coded warnings to them—caution, starting at 89 degrees; extreme caution, 10 degrees higher; danger, at 105 degrees; and extreme danger, at 130 degrees. In the danger zone, fatal or permanently debilitating heatstroke is possible. In the extreme-danger zone, heatstroke is likely no matter how you try to hide. And, again, these are apparent temperatures, with humidity factored in. At a 120-degree dry-bulb temperature, like that measured by an ordinary thermometer, you enter the extreme-danger zone. Add in 25 percent humidity and the apparent temperature becomes 138 degrees. When it comes to extreme heat, you can no more escape the conditions than you can shed your skin.


Here’s how you succumb. First you recoil from the heat on a tarmac, then you go into town and feel permanently hot. After sunset you go to the roof of a hotel. You sweat a lot. In a dry desert climate like that of Death Valley or the Sahara, the sweating feels more like thirst than like moisture. You drink but don’t feel less hot. In humid heat, like that of New York or Chicago, the excess sweat that drips from your chin does nothing to cool you. If you want to survive, you try to find shade and sit out the worst. It does not matter if you are bored and do not have a book to read. If you are on a battlefield in body armor, or must labor in the heat so that your family can eat, you may ignore your instincts, but you do so at your peril. At some point the equilibrium between heating and cooling breaks down—probably for the first time in your life—and your core temperature begins to climb. This can happen within minutes if you are physically active, but otherwise may take longer. Hot nights are especially dangerous because relief matters and the effects of heat are cumulative. Anyway, now you are in trouble.

The first stage is known as heat exhaustion. You sweat profusely and may feel some combination of weakness, nausea, headache, and uneasiness—due mostly to dehydration. It is common for athletes, soldiers, and farmworkers to go through this. If they rest in the shade and drink plenty of fluids, preferably containing electrolytes, they typically suffer no permanent consequences. On the other hand, if you are already resting in the shade and perspiration is not doing enough, you have already crossed the Rubicon and will progress to the next stage. Water no longer helps—your body has moved beyond its reach. Your mind is still clear, but as your core temperature continues to rise the body reacts by diverting increasing amounts of blood to the surface capillaries, in a desperate search for the cooling that it craves. Your skin may redden from the reaction. Robbed of sustaining blood flow, vital organs and tissues begin to malfunction. A systemic breakdown leading to permanent damage or death is about to occur. This is the final stage—heatstroke. It typically occurs when your temperature surpasses 104 degrees, though it can happen a bit earlier or later depending on circumstances. One indication may be that you simply stop sweating. Again, the diversion of blood flow appears to lie at the root of the disaster, only now your organs are not merely malfunctioning but being destroyed. Your liver, kidneys, lungs, gastrointestinal tract, spleen, brain, and heart are all under mortal attack. That same heart is racing, trying to circulate your blood. As brain functions are affected, you are likely to become confused, agitated, and possibly combative, before suffering seizures and falling into a coma. Immediate medical intervention is required to lower your temperature—either in an ice bath or by powerful evaporative cooling—but you may have reached the point of no return. With multiple failures occurring, and the entire cardiovascular system under enormous stress, the specific path to death depends on individual weaknesses. In many cases the end comes with a heart attack.

Air-conditioning is more pleasant, if you can afford it. Once you have it, it’s hard to imagine that others don’t. There is a saying that heat waves cause the invisible death of invisible people—the very old, the very young, the poor, the isolated, the abandoned, the lonely. It is true that for a weather phenomenon that kills more than any other, the problem has been strangely overlooked. The National Weather Service did not even begin compiling the numbers until 1986—and for years afterward it undercounted them. One reason is that, although heatstroke caused by exertion is easy to spot, the far larger phenomenon of deaths caused by heat waves is difficult to identify without resorting to long-term epidemiological studies. After a five-day heat wave that hit the Midwest in July 1995, researchers spent two years studying the statistics before arriving at a defensible estimate of 739 heat-related deaths in Chicago alone. Those were just the immediate deaths across 11 days in one city. Another study of the same period found that, of the several thousand heatstroke victims who were admitted to Chicago’s intensive-care units and who survived the initial kill-off, nearly half died within a year, and many others suffered permanent brain damage.

After Chicago, a widening understanding of the public-health threat posed by extreme heat began to gain acceptance. Predictably, some skeptics cast doubt on the numbers, arguing that many of the people who died were so old and sick that they were about to die anyway—the so-called harvesting effect. Then came the great European heat wave of August 2003, when temperatures rose above 104 degrees in Paris and, according to some reports, as many as 75,000 people across the Continent died. Many of them were old, but studies later showed that only about 10 percent of the mortality rate could be attributed to harvesting, and that the most infirm fared well, because this was Europe and they were being cared for in nursing homes. It was the relatively healthy, still able to live alone, who succumbed. France was the worst hit, with the loss of nearly 15,000 people. Because this was France, many of the dead had been left behind by families who had departed with ferocious determination on summer holidays. Some corpses rotted for weeks before being found. The heat wave of 2003 was the most severe to hit Western Europe in modern recorded history. But then it was nearly equaled seven years later, in 2010, with similar devastation. Europe at least has the wherewithal to look into the matter. By contrast, last summer, while some observers complained about an electromagnetic attack and Basra hit 129.2 degrees, Iraq seems to have shrugged off the suffering that it incurred. Among all the deaths Iraq reported last year, there was not a single one listed as having been caused by heat.


Global warming? Without a doubt. And Christopher Burt is a lucky man. As with others fascinated by weather records, his once obscure passion has been thrust into one of the central conversations of our time. Burt’s audience is surprisingly large. On average, 10,000 people a day read his postings on Weather Underground. Though he writes about all sorts of weather extremes, heat records are one of his greatest passions. It wasn’t always so. His first preoccupation was snow. That was because he was living in Princeton, New Jersey, and was six years old. His family owned a house on Mercer Street next door to the one that had belonged to Albert Einstein and was still occupied by Einstein’s stepdaughter. As a bright child himself, Burt discovered the connection between winter weather and getting out of school. On Tuesday, January 3, 1961, in reaction to the shock of returning to first grade after the Christmas break, he began keeping a weather journal (which he gave me to read). He wrote that the high that day was 32, the low was 22, and the average was 27, which was 6 degrees below normal. In the “Notes” section of that first entry, he wrote “cold day.” Unfortunately for him, there was no precipitation. He kept the record going day after day but suffered a setback when his older sister discovered the journal and penciled a fashion figure into it; undeterred, Burt erased the drawing and continued with the daily numbers. For this he was rewarded on Thursday, January 19, 1961, on the eve of John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, when a major snowstorm hit the Northeast. Burt was ecstatic. In the Notes section, he wrote, “Snow at noon! Was moderate by 3:30! Traffic snarled in blizzard-like conditions! Six foot drifts. All traffic and businesses paralyzed!” And then the big one: “Schools closed!” Two weeks later he was rewarded again, when an even larger snowstorm dumped 20 inches on the ground. “Emergency warnings! Longest cold spell in hundreds of years! Twelve foot drifts! Worst blizzard since 1888! All New Jersey paralyzed! Thirty inches of snow in North Jersey!”

That was the last productive snowfall of the winter. A while later, Burt’s sister hijacked the journal again, and this time did her sketches in ink. Burt abandoned his efforts but returned to them with a new weather diary in the spring of 1964. With no possibility of getting out of classes so late in the school year, he was now moving into a more obscure pursuit—the collection of disembodied weather data for its own sake. He kept at it, off and on, until June 26, 1973. At the same time, he compiled numbers in a separate journal on weather extremes to which he gave the name Weather Facts of the World: It’s Raining, It’s Pouring, but 46 Inches??!! In it, he listed temperature extremes from every state in alphabetical order; temperature extremes of state capitals; global temperature extremes by continent; rain records (in 1851 in Cherrapunji, India, 151 inches over five days!); snow records; atmospheric-pressure records; winds (not including tornadoes); extremes of temperature and precipitation in New York City; dry records and averages; principal tornadoes since 1900 (with fatalities); major floods (with fatalities); storm surges, typhoons, cyclones, and other catastrophic events (with fatalities); blizzards; earthquakes; avalanches; and volcanic eruptions. It took years to gather the information, but he was not entirely alone: across from his elementary school were the offices of Weatherwise, a weather-enthusiast magazine founded by a historian and Princeton fixture named David Ludlum, who was the author of classic studies such as Early American Winters, 1604–1820 (1966). Ludlum was a major collector of weather data with a love of snowstorms, and he offered help to Burt, who had wandered in one day in search of information. Another resource was a Princeton University geology library that regularly discarded daily weather maps on the assumption that they were irrelevant once the weather was past. Burt felt differently.

But he was not some oddball lurking in the stacks and keeping to himself. He was well rounded, gregarious, and social. By the time he was in high school, he wore his hair long and cultivated a persona as one of the cool crowd who hung out with musicians. He tried the harmonica for a while. In those circles, he realized that his interest in weather records could be severely embarrassing. He told me he thought, God, if anyone discovers my diaries, I’m screwed! Nonetheless, he continued with them right through graduation day—June 11, 1973, when the high in Princeton was 96, the low was 77, and the pressure was 30.02 inches and sinking as Burt went to bed. He then went off to study meteorology at the University of Wisconsin. It was a disaster. After one year in the program he dropped out because he could not do the required math. Swearing off weather forever, he moved to a hippie commune for a couple of years; drifted to Santa Cruz, where he worked as a carpenter and saved a little money; and then set off on a year-long overland trip through Asia on three dollars a day. He had many adventures. When he got to Thailand, he discovered a culture he loved. Eventually he returned to the University of Wisconsin for a degree in international studies, but—long story short—he spent the following 12 years living in Thailand, where he became a publisher of guidebooks (among other things), and in the midst of a tourist boom had great success. He married a vivacious Thai woman, a punk-rock singer named Jeernen Songsaeng, known to all as Ben. His career eventually led them to Oakland and then to an exquisite cottage on a hill overlooking San Francisco and its bay. During all that time he kept track only vaguely of weather events. He had a partner in the publishing business. In 1992 they sold the imprint to Random House, and for the next nine years Burt continued to run it semi-autonomously from Oakland. The operation was profitable. Then came the attacks of 9/11, after which sales tanked.

He looked around for what to do. He was old enough to wonder what he cared about, and began thinking about the possibility of a book about weather extremes. W. W. Norton signed it up. Burt photocopied a 1971 book of weather records by David Ludlum and set to work updating the numbers. In 2003 he delivered the first edition of Extreme Weather, dedicated to Ludlum, who had died in 1997. The New York Times gave it a full-page review, and the initial print run sold out within weeks. The founders of Weather Underground offered Burt a writing job in 2010, and he became one of the most widely read weather historians of our time. So much for the risk of being uncool in high school.

His scope is as broad as the weather, but extreme heat interests him most of all. Any fool can measure snowfall, rainfall, wind velocity, and minimum temperatures. Minimum temperatures, for instance, are easy to record because they typically occur at night. As a result, those records are generally accurate unless errors have been made in recording them. Measuring maximum air temperatures is much trickier because of the presence of sunlight. To state the obvious, if you place a thermometer in the direct sun, you do not get a measure of the air but of the thermometer itself; similarly, if you shade the thermometer but place it above black tarmac, or place it too high or too low, or place it too near to a tree, you do not get a temperature that is representative of the area and meets the standardization requirements of the World Meteorological Organization [WMO], a branch of the United Nations that concerns itself with such matters. Automation has helped, but measuring maximum air temperature correctly turns out to be extremely fussy stuff, and as a result the records are full of errors—often going back to Colonial times and biased toward the high side by Temperate Zone Europeans aghast at the heat. Uncovering the errors—let alone persuading the WMO to overturn them once they have become enshrined—requires painstaking detective work and a passion for detail.

Only Burt and a small group of researchers are willing to put in the time. The acknowledged grand master is a somewhat mysterious man of Costa Rican and Italian descent who goes by the name Maximiliano Herrera, lives in Bangkok, and has a Web site on which he maintains a list of temperature extremes from thousands of locations around the world, apparently updated daily. (He also has a Web site on which he ranks every country in the world according to various measures of human rights.) His Web sites are astonishing; the epithet Mad Max comes to mind. He certainly seems to be compulsive. Burt insists that he is a genius: when Max casts doubt on a record, or approves of one, he is correct almost every time. He knows it, too, and can get emotional. Responding last September to errors made by Burt in a monthly heat summary posted on Weather Underground, he entered the conversation as “maxcrc” and wrote, “The data from Sanlucar la Mayor is completely unreliable. It has been like that for long time. It’s not correct to say that Setubal beat its all time record (43.5C), it tied it at the Areia station, it’s not correct that Cordoba AP recorded 45.7C, it was 45.4C., 45.7 was recorded in the Meteoclimatic Downtown station. Also, Mitribah recorded 51.2C on Sept 4th, not the 3rd. I had sent the correct information several times, but wrong data is still published, so I want to exclude myself from content of this article.”

Somebody going by “999Ai2016” had the audacity to challenge him, then pulled the challenge, inserting instead “I deleted this comment because it’s useless to quote/answer some people’s baseless rants.”

Herrera ranted in reply, “You know nothing about that issue, that’s why you deleted your comment. Go and check the Sanlucar la Mayor station before saying mine were baseless rants! I have done this job for 27 years and a little ignorant like you is not gonna defaming me. I can show the evidence that the station is not working properly and you try—if you can—to show otherwise. Believe me, I not used to saying anything baseless in my profession, if I am not sure about something, I just keep quiet.”

Then the surprise. Suddenly realizing who maxcrc was, 999Ai2016 answered, “Yes you’re right. I know nothing about that issue, and I’m not qualified to discuss it. That was my mistake, at first I completely misunderstood your comment, I didn’t realize you were Maximiliano Herrera . . . deeply respect you and your work, please accept my sincere apologies.”

Burt has editorial control over the postings. He told me he tries to keep things productive and normally eliminates squabbles and insults, but because this one involved Herrera he did not dare. Herrera is a horror when aroused. He is a contributor to Weather Underground and an invaluable resource. It was he, for instance, who in March 2010 gave weight to the idea that the long-accepted all-time world heat record of 136.4 degrees, recorded on September 13, 1922, in Al Azizia, Libya, was invalid. The measurement was made by Italian troops who were occupying Libya at the time. With the help of a Polish weather researcher and a climatologist in Tripoli, Burt spent months looking into the matter. He discovered that the Al Azizia readings were systematically out of whack with other readings nearby, that they came from a crude thermometer that could easily have been misread, that the thermometer had been mounted above a concrete pad coated with black tar, and that a reading of that level was never again approached after the Al Azizia weather station was moved and modernized. In October 2010, he posted an article on Weather Underground in which he explained his findings. The article prodded the WMO into opening an investigation. After more than a year, the organization officially invalidated the Libyan measurement. It was a huge victory for Burt and made the front page of The New York Times. One might expect that the grand master, Herrera, would have been pleased, but he had no use for the ponderous ways of the WMO, and he was outraged that the world heat record would now be held by a 1913 measurement of 134 degrees at Greenland Ranch, in Death Valley—a claim that he believed to be bogus. Railing on Weather Underground at 3:43 AM Bangkok time, he wrote, “I remember when I was seven I knew already the microclimates of every square meter of the whole planet, and I almost vomited when I read about the absurd and obviously physically impossible fake temperature at Azizia, Greenland Ranch, Tirats Tsvi, etc. Only people without even the minimal basic knowledge of climatology might believe those absurdities. More than 25 years ago I published a much better investigation saying how fake and absurd (and obviously absolutely IMPOSSIBLE) those records were. At that time I was 13 . . . Well, this has been a funny joke for children under two years old. There are even some adults who believe it, and they even pretend to be experts in climatology. The whole world is laughing at their faces.” By “whole world” he must have meant others like him. Burt himself had doubts about the Death Valley number, but he had not looked into it yet. He was enjoying his status as the man who had dispatched Al Azizia.

Then he made a fateful misstep. In the summer of 2013, he addressed a conference in Death Valley—now officially the hottest place in the world—on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the heat record there. His subject was Libya, but Herrera took Burt’s presence at the conference as an implicit endorsement of the Death Valley record, and a personal betrayal. He wrote Burt an angry e-mail. Burt knew him well enough to take it in stride, and a week later things returned to normal—though other outbursts have followed. Recently, while enduring an e-mail banishment by Herrera (for publishing data without waiting for its vetting), Burt co-authored a 7,000-word takedown of the Death Valley record, demonstrating that the 134-degree temperature recorded there was a fraud. It remains to be seen if officialdom will respond, but reasonable people now accept that Death Valley—whose later but lesser 129.2-degree mark remains unchallenged—has been reduced to sharing the record with Mitribah. As always, Herrera was right, and for once he seems to have been mollified.

It gets so one has to remember that the numbers are not abstractions but measures of something real: heat. August 2016 was the planet’s warmest August since records for global warmth began being kept, in 1880. This marked the 15th consecutive month of record-breaking warmth, which is likely the longest uninterrupted stretch of record-breaking global heat ever measured. Since then, as of this writing, every month has either been the second or third warmest on record, with the exception of November 2016 (which was the fifth warmest). Greenhouse gasses are not the only cause; a strong El Niño played an important role. But 2016 will go down as the third consecutive hottest year on record. And that is just an overview. In city after city around the world, a huge number of records were broken last year for highest minimum nighttime temperature, highest average temperature, and highest maximum daytime temperature. The worst of the associated heat waves started in Australia and with unrivaled intensity worked progressively westward, smothering Southeast Asia, breaking records at half of Thailand’s weather sites, and hitting India as India had never been hit before. All-time national heat records were broken in Cambodia (108.78), Laos (107.6), Thailand (112.3), and India (123.8). Iraq, Iran, and Kuwait also broke their national heat records. Because the temperatures were accompanied in places by high humidity, it is certain that thousands of people died. Apparent temperatures are not systematically recorded, but they can be pieced together. Along the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, where sea surface temperatures rise to 90 degrees (a temperature as high as 98 degrees has been measured in the Persian Gulf) and humidity is intense, the heat waves routinely shoved apparent temperatures into the 130s and thus into the extreme-danger zone. On July 31, 2015, in the city of Bandar Mahshahr, Iran, high humidity raised a dry-bulb temperature of 115 degrees to an apparent temperature of 165. According to Burt, humidity elevated the apparent temperature in Appleton, Wisconsin, to 148.5 degrees in July 1995. That may have been a U.S. record, but records for apparent temperature are not maintained by the National Weather Service. The global record appears to be held by Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, where the air temperature in the shade was 108 degrees and the dew point 95 degrees on July 8, 2003, making for an apparent temperature of 176 degrees. Such conditions are not survivable for long. In 2010, two climate-change researchers using computer modeling and calculations of human cooling capacities predicted that large parts of the earth may become uninhabitable during heat waves in future centuries. The study was based on a scenario of rapid global warming and was probably a bit shrill in its view of the consequences—mass migrations and war—but the science was solid and easy to believe. After all, large parts of the planet are already uninhabitable, at least for some percentage of the population some percentage of the time. And the heat waves are hitting harder, and coming more frequently than ever before. # # #

[William Langewiesche is the international correspondent for Vanity Fair and prior to that was was a national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly. A professional pilot for many years, he is the author of several books — the most recent is the reissue of American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center (2001, 2011). See other books by Langewiesche here. He received a BA (cultural anthropology) from Stanford University.]

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