Death Valley May Hit 120 Degrees For the First Time This Year; Here's A Brief History of Its Legendary Extreme Heat

Jon Erdman
Published: June 13, 2018


Mention Death Valley, California, to any meteorologist and the phrases "record heat" or "extreme heat" immediately pop to mind.

Named by prospectors trying to cross the desolate valley during the California Gold Rush in the mid-19th century, Death Valley holds the world record hottest recorded temperature, 134 degrees, on July 10, 1913. 

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The thermometer at the Furnace Creek resort already reads 120 degrees before noon in Death Valley National Park Friday, June 28, 2013 in Furnace Creek, California.
(AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

One hundred thirty-four degrees seems incomprehensible to most of us who may sweat through a 90-degree day.

This is 13 degrees hotter than the hottest temperatures measured in the Plains during the 1930s "Dust Bowl," 12 degrees hotter than the all-time record high at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport, and approximately the recommended cooking temperature for a medium-rare steak.

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According to a comprehensive writeup about the event from the National Weather Service in Las Vegas, the official observer in Death Valley later noted concern that the temperature was actually higher that day, as the official thermometer only read up to 135 degrees and other thermometers at Greenland Ranch read higher.

That July day was only one day in a heat wave for the ages in Death Valley. They also reached 130 degrees on July 12 and 131 degrees on July 13, 1913. These three days remain the only days of 130-degree-plus heat on record, there.

Death Valley's heat, even in an average year, is likely beyond anything most have experienced before.

Consider these eye-popping statistics:

Typical Death Valley Heat

  • Average number of 100 degree or hotter days per year: 143 days
  • Average first/last date of 100-degree heat: April 16/Oct. 10
  • Average number of 80 degree or hotter daily lows per year: 84 days

So, just under five months of the year, you can expect a triple-digit high at Death Valley's Furnace Creek, and just under three months out of the year, morning low temperatures don't drop below 80 degrees.

Now, let's really turn the heat up.

  • Average number of 120-degree-plus days per year:19 days
  • Average number of 90-degree-plus daily lows per year:25 days

Cheng Jia, of China, takes a picture of Yongxin Yan by a digital thermometer at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center in Death Valley National Park Friday, June 28, 2013 in Furnace Creek, Calif.
(AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

To place 120 degrees into perspective, that is the all-time state record high (as of this column) in Arkansas, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Texas, according to Weather Underground weather historian Christopher Burt.

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Can you imagine living in a place where the daily low temperature is in the 90s? We'll come back to that later.

Again, these are average conditions in Death Valley. 

The Not-as-Infamous Records

Now, let's detail some other factoids about Death Valley's weather, including its incredible lack of precipitation – also a contributor to its extreme heat.

  • A ground temperature once reached 201 degrees on July 15, 1972. That's just 11 degrees shy of the boiling point of water. The air temperature that day reached 128 degrees.
  • On July 5, 1918, the daily low temperature only dropped to 110 degrees, a world record hottest daily low. That daily Death Valley low is higher than the all-time high temperature in all six New England states, New York, Maryland, Florida, Alaska and Hawaii.
  • On April 22, 2012, the hottest temperature on record during the month of April in North America was recorded in Death Valley: 113 degrees.
  • In 1929 and 1953, no rain was recorded in Death Valley. For 40 straight months between 1931 and 1934, less than one total inch of rain fell – 0.64 inches, to be exact – in what is still its longest dry spell on record.

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Runners gather for a photo at largely dried-out Badwater Basin before the start of the 135-mile Kiehl's Badwater Ultramarathon in July 2007 in Death Valley National Park in southeastern California.
(Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

Why Is It So Hot in Death Valley?

Furnace Creek, home of the Death Valley National Park Visitor's Center, where the official temperature reading is taken, is roughly 190 feet below sea level. Since air warms as it descends, that extra elevation plunge adds extra heat.

Secondly, just 2.29 inches of precipitation falls each year in the valley, on average. Contrast that to the average evaporation rate of 150 inches a year. No wonder it's a dry lake bed.

Most Pacific storm systems have the lion's share of their moisture taken away by four mountain ranges to the west of Death Valley. Their wettest month, February, averages only 0.56 inches of precipitation.

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Amazingly, despite this desert environment, destructive floods are not uncommon. 

A Legacy of Flooding

A bizarre pair of flash flood events in October 2015 washed out the main road to Scotty's Castle in the park, as well as damaging some infrastructure and outbuildings on the castle grounds, leaving several feet of mud and rocks inside.

According to the National Park Service, Scotty's Castle picked up around 3 inches of rain in just five hours. They average only about 4 inches of precipitation the entire year.

It was considered the greatest flood event at Scotty's Castle since it was built in the 1920s.

Sections of five other roads in the park were also damaged, stranding tourists and campers.

On Aug. 15, 2004, torrential rain sent walls of floodwater up to 8 to 10 feet deep through parts of the park.

Miles of roads were washed out and closed for months. Cars were swept away and buried. Two people were killed near Zabriskie Point. The park was closed for nine days and was considered the costliest Death Valley weather event, with damage estimated at $20 million.

The wet weather continued into the following winter, filling the typically dry salt flats of Badwater Basin with up to two feet of water, allowing kayakers to enjoy the joy of paddling the new, small lake into early spring 2005, according to NWS-Las Vegas

Other destructive floods occurred in 1987, 1984 and 1976, among other years.

Yes, It Even Can Snow

Only once on record has measurable snow fallen on the valley floor, when 0.5 inch of snow was recorded at Greenland Ranch, the official recording station on January 29, 1922. 

NWS-Las Vegas official records say a trace of snow was recorded on five other dates, most recently January 4-5, 1974 and January 22, 1962.

A prolonged cold snap in January 1949 also deposited trace snow amounts in the valley, briefly covering the ground at Furnace Creek Ranch before melting.

That same event, however, dumped 4 inches of snow at Cow Creek from January 10-11, 1949, the heaviest known snowfall below sea level in the park, according to NWS-Las Vegas.

Jonathan Erdman is a senior meteorologist at weather.com and has been an incurable weather geek since a tornado narrowly missed his childhood home in Wisconsin at age 7. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter and subscribe to The Weather Channel podcast wherever you get your podcasts.


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