Hot Pockets

Moving stones at Racetrack Playa, northwest of Death Valley, California

You may have noticed while trying to cool off this summer that the HEAT is on! According to meteorologists, July 2019 replaced July 2016 as the hottest month ever measured—in terms of the global average temperature. Record highs were set in at least a dozen countries, from Europe to North America. Even Norway felt “tropical” with a recent high of 68°F. Even Anchorage, Alaska, was among the “hot pockets.” Unseasonably high temperatures led to wildfires there, and in Greenland glaciers reportedly shed 11 billion tons of ice into the ocean on July 31 alone.

July was about 1°F warmer than the global average, according to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Programme. Why the extreme heat? It’s complicated. Against a background of global warming, a “perfect storm” of conditions can cause temperatures to rise. In the past, heat waves have often followed El Niño, a phenomenon that warms the waters in the Pacific Ocean and thereby contributes to rising global temperatures. The year 2016—the hottest on record—witnessed a strong El Niño. This year’s was weaker, however, which makes this summer’s heat waves all the more alarming.

Death Valley, a region in the Mojave Desert in eastern California, for example, holds the all-time records for the highest air and ground temperatures. According to the WMO, the air temperature on July 10, 1913, was 134.1°F in a place appropriately named Furnace Creek, located in the Death Valley desert. Meanwhile, the ground there sizzled to 201°F on July 15, 1972—just 11 degrees shy of the boiling point of water!

What makes Death Valley so hot? Sea level is the key. Air warms as the sea level drops, and Death Valley—at about 190 feet below sea level—is the lowest point in the United States. It is also one of the nation’s driest areas, averaging only three inches of rain each year. Other world hot spots include Kebili, Tunisia, where the temperature supposedly reached 131°F in July 1931. Kebili is one of the most ancient oases in North Africa.

Image credit: © Vezzani Photography/Shutterstock

Related links:

  • Massive Heat Wave Blamed for at Least 6 Deaths
    News report on this summer’s deadly heat wave; includes video and stories from across the United States.
    (Source: CBS News, July 21, 2019)
  • July Confirmed as Hottest Month Recorded
    Article discussing 2019’s record-breaking hot temperatures.
    (Source:, August 5, 2019)
  • Mystery of How Rocks Move across Death Valley Lake Bed Solved
    This article tells how two cousins solved the mystery of the moving rocks at Racetrack Playa.
    (Source: Los Angeles Times, August 27, 2014)
  • The Big Picture on Hothouse Earth
    This four-minute video introduces the alarming new “Hothouse Earth” computer-model scenario; see also an accompanying article and global map of potential “tipping” points.
    (Source: Stockholm Resilience Centre, accessed August 9, 2019)
  • Warning Signs and Symptoms of Heat-Related Illness
    Heat-related illnesses are preventable; this article explains symptoms such as dizziness, a quickened pulse, and nausea.
    (Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, September 1, 2017)
  • Earth (animation)
    View this interactive animated “3D” globe, designed by computer programmer Cameron Beccario, which updates every three hours with weather data from the Global Forecast System of the National Centers for Environmental Prediction.
    (Source:; accessed August 13, 2019)

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