The Scientist Who Almost Died While Debunking "The Hottest Day on Earth"S

The world record for the hottest recorded temperature of 58°C (136.4°F) was set at Al Azizia, Libya, in 1922. This year, a team of researchers — including one who was almost killed in Libya's 2011 revolution — invalidated that record. Here's the harrowing story of how they did it.

It's incredibly rare for such an old record to be overturned. The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) tracks weather records, but they don't generally examine old records to determine if they are valid, even though technology and statistical analysis can often shed new light on old data. But that's exactly how the Al Azizia record was thrown out.

There have been doubts about this particular record for some time. But with no way to know for sure if the record was inaccurate or faked, the best anyone could do was take the record with a grain of salt. But in 2010, Christopher C. Burt, weather historian and author of Weather Underground's Weather Historian blog, discussed the topic with a few other weather researchers: Italian temperature researcher and climatologist Maximiliano Herrera, Polish weather researcher Piotr Djakow, and Khalid Ibrahim El Fadli, director of the climate department at the Libyan National Meteorological Center (LNMC) in Tripoli. He later got Arizona State University (ASU) professor Dr. Randy Cerveny involved — and Dr. Cerveny happens to be a WMO extreme weather record investigator.

The Scientist Who Almost Died While Debunking "The Hottest Day on Earth"

El Fadli was instrumental in moving the investigation forward. Through his research, he turned up original documents that cast serious doubt on the recorded temperature. The original log sheet clearly showed that a different person had taken over recording temperatures, just two days before the record — and that person's involvement corresponded with a sudden jump in recorded temperatures, compared to temperatures recorded at other Libyan weather stations over the same period.

In February of 2011, all communication with El Fadli ceased, as Libya was consumed by violence. When Col. Gaddafi gave a speech specifically mentioning traitors giving climate info to NATO forces, Burt and the other collaborators had a terrible certainty that El Fadli was dead.

He was not, but it was a near thing. El Fadli's account is harrowing:

My office satellite Internet connection was still up and running. But using such posed serious dangers, if anyone discovered me I would probably lose my life. Hence, I never used that connection…When I was driving to morning prayers (04:00 am) with my sons, [we] suddenly came under gunfire from the back and rear of the vehicle. The vehicle was struck as I drove at a crazy speed with our heads ducked low.

The investigation was able to continue when Gaddafi was killed and the revolution ended.

Further evidence that the record was invalid included:

The Bellani-Six thermometer used at Al Azizia was known to be difficult to read. The temperature was shown by the bottom of the slider, but inexperienced observers often read the top, giving a reading exactly 7°C above actual.

The Scientist Who Almost Died While Debunking "The Hottest Day on Earth"

A statistical analysis of known surface conditions in Libya in 1922 showed that the Al Azizia reading was an extreme statistical deviation.

Eventually, it became impossible to deny that the Al Azizia record was an error. A 13-person committee unanimously recommended it be invalidated, and the WMO agreed. The record no longer stands. Weather Underground has produced a documentary on the overturning of the record called Dead Heat.

What's the new record? 56.7°C (134°F) at Greenland Ranch, Death Valley, CA on July, 10 1913. However, Burt has doubts about that record as well. If it falls, the record will go right back to Libya, a 55°C (131°F) reading taken at Ghadames.

Sources: Almond, Kyle. "Think it's hot? Imagine living here." CNN World.

Burt, Christopher C. "World Heat Record Overturned—A Personal Account." Weather Underground.

Photos: Libyan National Meteorological Center, NASA, Jim Petit.