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New hottest-ever extreme temperature records now easier to achieve

1922 Italian army reading in Libya expunged from files

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Americans having just sweltered through a baking summer may not believe it, but there have been hotter ones in the past: for instance in 1913, when the second-highest temperature ever recorded - a brutal 56.7°C or 134 Fahrenheit - was seen in California's Death Valley.

Until this year, the disbelieving American reader might be still more astonished to learn that an even higher temperature had once occurred on Earth: the highest ever recorded, at 58°C (136.4 F), at an Italian army base in Libya in 1922*.

Now, however, the relevant international authorities have decided that the unnamed Italian soldier who took the world record reading must have cocked it up, and erased it from the records. They explain the decision thus:

The international meteorological team – which included experts from Libya, Italy, Spain, Egypt, France, Morocco, Argentina, the United States and the United Kingdom – identified five major concerns with the El Azizia temperature record. They included the use of antiquated instrumentation, a likely inexperienced observer, an observation site which was not representative of the desert surroundings, poor matching of the extreme to other nearby locations and poor matching to subsequent temperatures recorded at the site.

“We found systematic errors in the 1922 reading,” says Randy Cerveny, the Rapporteur of Climate and Weather Extremes for the World Meteorological Organisation, the person responsible for keeping worldwide weather records. “This change to the record books required significant sleuthing and a lot of forensic records work."

Cerveny also apparently said - though we don't personally believe it - that: “In the heart of every meteorologist and climatologist beats the soul of a detective".

The souls of the international team looking into the 1922 temperature reading must have skipped a beat on a couple of occasions when their Libyan colleague, meteorological official Khalid El Fadli, dropped out of communication for lengthy periods during the recent rebellion against Colonel Gadaffi. However it appears that the dauntless El Fadli managed not only to survive but hang onto his job, and after these interruptions the process carried on.

Cerveny explains why the team eventually decided that the 1922 reading - taken with an instrument known as a "Six-Bellini thermometer" - wasn't kosher:

“One of the problems with a Six-Bellini thermometer is that the indicator – the pointer – to the temperature scale could conceivably be read at the top of the pointer or the bottom of the pointer,” he says. “If an inexperienced observer used the top of the pointer rather than the bottom, he would have been as much as 7°C in error.”

In any case, the decision is now final and the world record temperature figure has now dropped by more than a degree. This will naturally mean that a new world record can be expected to happen significantly sooner than would otherwise have been the case.

“The end result is an even better set of data for analysis of important global and regional questions involving climate change," says Cerveny. ®

Bootnote

*Italy was the colonial power in the territories nowadays known as Libya until WWII, having taken them away from nominal Ottoman overlordship in 1911. However in 1922 the Italian forces were still having a fairly serious dispute with the locals as to who was really in charge, one which went on until the 1930s.

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