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Image of road moving into mountains in the distance.
The road to Natural Bridge in Death Valley National Park in California. Photo by Carol Highsmith, 2012. Prints and Photographs Division.

Extremities of the Earth: The Hottest Place on Earth

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It is all about temperature in this next post of our Extremities of the Earth series! It has been a sweltering summer in many places around the world. But one location stands out above the rest as consistently recording the hottest air temperatures on the planet – Death Valley, California. Not only is Death Valley the warmest place on earth, it can also be awarded the superlative for lowest point in North America, a double extremity that I couldn’t resist exploring further.

Death Valley is in the northern Mojave Desert of eastern California and has been home to the Timbisha tribe, formerly known as the Panamint Shoshone, for centuries. White Americans came in contact with the tribe for the first time as they were passing through the area during the 1849 California Gold Rush, leaving behind a name that stuck, Death Valley, due to its harsh climate and the death of 13 gold prospectors. More white settlers came to the area in the next several decades to mine for gold, silver, and borax, pushing the Shoshone from their tribal lands. In the 1877 map below, the linguistic areas of the Native American tribes of California are mapped, including the Shoshoni lands around Death Valley. After decades of activism and fighting for recognition, the Timbisha tribe was able to successfully reclaim 7,500 acres of their ancestral land in the areas surrounding valley.

Colored map of California showing the different Native language areas in the state with each color representing a different language.

Detail of map above showing the Shoshone lands near Death Valley.
Map Showing the Distribution of the Indian Tribes of California. Map by US Geographical and Geological Survey, 1877. Geography and Map Division.

The official record for the highest air temperature ever taken is 134.1 degrees Fahrenheit (56.7 C), set on July 10, 1913 at Furnace Creek in Death Valley. While there has been some debate as to the reliability of this reading, it currently stands as the official record holder. Death Valley also has the second highest record which is undisputed at 129.2 degrees Fahrenheit (54 C), tied with a record in Kuwait. So why is this particular point on the earth’s surface so hot? It has to do with the convergence of several geographic features including the depth, shape, and makeup of the valley. The valley lies on the eastern side of four large mountain ranges which blocks most of the moisture that comes in off the ocean, leaving the area extremely dry. The valley floor is sparsely vegetated, which causes the ground to soak up the heat of the intense sunlight while warm winds sweep over the mountains. All of this heat remains trapped due to the steep mountain walls surrounding the valley. In the map below, the high mountain ranges to the west of the the valley and the range to the east can be seen by the topographic shading. The map was made in 1891 by the Death Valley Expedition, a scientific venture to study the plants and animals of the region.

Black and white map of the lower end of California that shows topography with shading and includes towns and roads.
Map of Parts of California, Nevada, Arizona, and Utah traverse in 1891 by the Death Valley Expedition. Map by A.H. Thompson and C.H. Fitch, 1892. Geography and Map Division.

Not only is Death Valley the hottest place on earth, Badwater Basin within the valley is the lowest point in North America, sitting at 282 feet below sea level. Ironically, the highest point in the United States is only 85 miles away at the peak of Mount Whitney. The small pool is surrounded by miles of salt encrusted flats which dry in a hexagonal honeycomb shape.

Despite the sparse vegetation, miles of salt flats, and the scorching landscape, this stretch of land has captured the imagination of people for generations. Death Valley was designated a national monument in 1933 by President Herbert Hoover and later re-designated a national park in 1994. Many maps have been created of the area since that time, though certainly none quite as unique as this “hysterical map” of Death Valley National Monument, published in 1948 by the Lindgren Brothers. Click on the map to zoom in to really appreciate the humor of the map! And while the official national park map seen below has a bit less levity than the first, it certainly had more accurate geographic information and points of interest for those interested in visiting the valley.

Map full of jokes about the different areas of Death Valley. Map is on a yellow background with white mountains and red roads.
A hysterical map of Death Valley National Monument : and it’s lookin’ mighty low. Map by Lindgren Brothers, 1948. Geography and Map Division.
Official national park map that shows roads and points of interest in the park.
Death Valley National Park. Map by National Park Service, 2019. Geography and Map Division.

Death Valley is truly an area of extremes both in temperature and in elevation. Over one million people visit the national park every year and are able to marvel at the otherworldly landscape of the hottest place on earth.

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