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Science & Technology

It's No Pushover: How Researchers Assess World Records

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The temperature in Death Valley, Calif., this week has reached a searing 130 degrees. It could be the highest temperature ever accurately measured on earth - could be. But first, it's got to be verified by a bunch of scientists. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Back in 2005, Randy Cerveny was watching Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans.

RANDY CERVENY: And while it was a really bad hurricane, I heard several news reports referring to it as the worst hurricane that has ever been seen. And that's not true.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: For example, a far deadlier one hit Galveston, Texas, in 1900. Cerveny is a meteorologist at Arizona State University, and it occurred to him that there was no system to verify claims about world records for weather.

CERVENY: I suggested that we set one up, and the World Meteorological Organization said, hey, that sounds like a great idea. Would you be willing to do it?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: So he did. The World Meteorological Organization is the part of the United Nations that makes sure weather measurements around the globe get done in a standardized way. And since 2007, it's also made independent verifications of weather extremes, like the highest ocean wave or the strongest wind gust. When a new claim to fame is made, Cerveny puts together an ad hoc group of the world's best experts on that subject. They spend months examining every detail related to the measurement.

CERVENY: They're going to look at the instrument. They're going to look at the observation practices. They're going to look at the terrain and the overall weather that's going on at that particular location.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: In addition to verifying new claims, they sometimes reconsider old ones. Take what was supposedly the hottest air temperature ever measured on earth - 136.4 degrees Fahrenheit in Libya in 1922. When the expert committee saw the original log sheets, they found data in wrong columns and other discrepancies put in there by a substitute weather official. They concluded that the high measurement was unreliable and recommended that it be ditched. Cerveny says the final decision is always made by one person.

CERVENY: Unfortunately, that's me (laughter).

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Right now, he says a committee is examining a possible record-high temperatures set a couple months ago for the Arctic Circle - 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit. In addition to this United Nations group, some countries convene their own expert panels to check out extreme weather measurements made within their own borders. One in the U.S. will be looking at that 130 degrees Fahrenheit reading in Death Valley, and Dan Berk isn't worried. He's a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Las Vegas, Nev., which covers Death Valley.

DAN BERK: I see no reason to believe on the surface that this 130 is incorrect. I think based on what I can see now that it'll probably stand up.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Let's say it's real. Would it be the highest temperature ever accurately recorded? Well, the official current world record is an earlier measurement in Death Valley - 134 degrees Fahrenheit in July of 1913. Some scientists have pointed out problems with that one.

BERK: I got to tell you that as far as world records and controversies surrounding them, I don't think anything beats the 134 temperature at Death Valley.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: So far, though, the national and global verification committees haven't taken that one up. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.