Situated between a series of high, steep mountain ranges in California’s Mojave Desert, Death Valley’s extremely low elevation (282 feet below sea level in some places) and long, narrow configuration keep the region’s temperatures consistently high throughout much of the year. Triple-digit temperatures there are not unusual, with the mercury consistently topping 100 degrees for more than half the year; the summer of 2001, for example, had 154 consecutive days of 100 degrees or higher. As 1913 began, however, the valley was experiencing a rare cold snap, entering the record books on January 8 with its lowest recorded temperature, 5 degrees Fahrenheit. Just six months later, the weather pendulum had swung the other way as temperatures in the area topped first 125 degrees and then entered a stretch of five straight days of 129 degrees or higher.
Furnace Creek, California, the ancestral home of the Native American Timbisha tribe and once the center of operations for Death Valley’s lucrative mining industry, often experienced some of the most extreme of the region’s weather, as was the case on July 10, 1913, when a weather observation post at the town’s Greenland Ranch (now Furnace Creek Ranch) recorded a peak temperature of 134 degrees—just one degree less than its thermometer was capable of measuring.
Death Valley may be celebrating the centennial of its temperature triumph, but it’s actually only officially held the record for 10 of those 100 years. On September 13, 1922, less than a decade after Death Valley’s record-breaking day, it seemingly lost its crown to a new entrant in the sweltering heat sweepstakes when a weather observer in El Aziza, Libya, reported a high of 136.4 degrees. Almost immediately, members of the meteorological community expressed doubts about the reports, but the Libyan “record” stood for 90 years until it was officially invalidated after an international investigation by a panel of atmospheric scientists found several errors with the original measurement, including the use of antiquated instrumentation and the inexperience of the weather observer. The panel, chaired by the World Meteorological Organization, had its work disrupted for more than nine months after one if its lead investigators, a director of the Libyan National Weather Service, disappeared in the chaos of the country’s 2011 revolution. When both he (and the original 1922 records) resurfaced, the WMO panel officially stripped El Aziza of the world record and restored it to Death Valley’s Furnace Creek.
Today, Furnace Creek is home to park campgrounds, museums and a popular ranch, much of which is closed to visitors during the hottest parts of the summer. One attraction that remains open, however, is the nearby golf course, which hosts an annual tournament, known as the Heatstroke Open. And while the world’s meteorologists debated the merits of the Libyan claim, Death Valley went on breaking weather records. When the temperature dropped to a relatively cool 107 degrees on July 12, 2012, Death Valley tied the desert nation of Oman, on the Arabian Peninsula, for the hottest low temperature ever recorded. And in June of this year, Death Valley came within 5 degrees of the 1913 record when saw temperatures reach 129 degrees.
Furnace Creek, Death Valley may hold the North American and world record, but Libya’s far from its only challenger for “hottest place on Earth.” Seven years after Death Valley’s record-breaking day, South America experienced its hottest day when the mercury reached 120.4 degrees Fahrenheit in Villa de María, Argentina. In 1931, the south Tunisian town of Kebii saw temperatures reach 131 degrees Fahrenheit, making it the hottest day on the African continent. Ownership of Europe’s hottest day is under debate, with most scientists rejecting Catenanuova, Italy’s 1999 claim of 119.3 degrees in favor of the 118.4-degree day residents of Athens, Greece endured in July 1977. But if you’re looking to beat the heat entirely, Antarctica is probably your best bet. It hasn’t made it above 59 degrees Fahrenheit since 1974, and in 2011 the South Pole made history when temperatures reached a balmy 10 degrees Fahrenheit on Christmas Day.