Although Chatterbox regards Slate as a near-flawless source of news and commentary, it does tend to neglect an important aspect of life: the weather. Not once has Slate ever run the headline, "Whew! It's a Scorcher!" or posted, in the middle of a cold-weather snap, a photograph of a Florida orange covered with frost. (Incidentally, Chatterbox has long suspected the AP keeps on file a single photograph of a frost-covered orange and uses it every year. How would anyone know the difference?)
These thoughts are inspired by the current miserable heat wave. It's a scorcher! According to USA Today, America's newspaper of record on the subject of weather, it's supposed to be upward of 100 degrees today on the Great Plains and in parts of the southeast and southwest. (Click here for USA Today's incomprehensible-but-gripping "radar movie" of the continental United States.) As the century draws to a close, "hottest summer" records are being broken left and right, making it harder and harder to pooh-pooh evidence that greenhouse gasses are warming the planet. However, Chatterbox isn't really interested today in expounding on the terrifying menace of global warming. (It's too hot.) Instead, Chatterbox finds himself wondering: How hot can it get? As is usually the case when interesting questions are raised, the answer can be found on the Web--in this case, by consulting the National Climatic Data Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (popularly known as NOAA and pronounced exactly like Chatterbox's last name).
Chatterbox has always felt that the usual way temperature records are expressed--by comparing today's temperature in Topeka to the temperature in Topeka on this same exact day in previous years--is a bit of a cheat. With 365 days in a year, and a limited database of temperatures recorded in Topeka during previous years, you've got a pretty decent chance of breaking weather records pretty frequently. No doubt there are serious scientific reasons for recording all-time temperature highs this way, but a nonscientific reason may be that it makes it easier for weather authorities to soothe an aggrieved public: There, there. You're right. Nobody's ever had to endure what you're enduring today. But Chatterbox wants to know: What's the hottest it's ever been, anywhere?
According to NOAA, the hottest it's ever been, anywhere on Earth, at least as far as we know, was 136 degrees Fahrenheit. That was the temperature recorded in El Azizia, Libya, on Sept. 13, 1922. The second-hottest it's ever been, anywhere, was right here in the United States, when it hit 134 degrees at the Greenland Ranch in Death Valley, Calif., on July 10, 1913. The third-hottest it's ever been, anywhere, was in Tirat Tsvi, in what would soon be Israel: 129 degrees on June 21, 1942. (The coldest it's ever been, anywhere, interestingly, was recorded in July--July 23, 1983--when it hit minus 129 degrees in Vostok, Antarctica.)
NOAA also has hottest-ever data for America-firsters who only really care about how hot it gets in the U.S. (On the "Temperature Extremes" page, go to "All-Time Temperature Maximums by State" and click on "Table [PDF].") As previously stated, the hottest day in the U.S. was July 10, 1913, when it hit 134 degrees in Death Valley, Calif. The second-hottest day in the U.S. was June 29, 1994, when it hit 128 degrees in Lake Havasu City, Ariz., and 125 degrees Fahrenheit (the third-highest temperature ever recorded in the U.S.) in Laughlin, Nev. The third-hottest day in the U.S. was June 27, 1994--presumably the same heat wave--when it hit 122 degrees in the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico. (Chatterbox assumes the temperature had nothing to do with the radioactivity of the WIPP's contents.) The second-hottest and third-hottest records would seem to support the theory that global warming is making the planet, or at least the United States, much hotter.
Probably the data isn't perfect. Can it really be true that the hottest temperature ever recorded in Hawaii was 100 degrees (on April 27, 1931)? Chatterbox has never been to Hawaii but was under the impression it had a warm climate. Chatterbox would also like to take this opportunity to implore pedants not to write in and point out that during earlier geological eras the worldwide climate was vastly different from what it's been during the last century (which is about as far back as record-keeping goes). Still, the NOAA statistics do seem to show that, hot as it is, we should all stop bitching and get back to work. It's been hotter.