Does it really get up to 130 degrees in Iraq?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Sept. 12 2007 5:08 PM

How Hot Is Iraq?

Why does everyone think it's 130 degrees?

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

Yesterday, John McCain told supporters in Iowa that U.S. soldiers are "carrying 40 pounds of body armor in 130-degree temperatures." Run a quick Google News search, and you'll find numerous references to Iraq's sweltering "130-degree" weather. It's in the Philadelphia Daily News, the Providence Journal, the Tucson Citizen, Wired, and even on military blogs. But according to this government Web site, the highest temperature ever recorded in Asia is 124 degrees—in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. So, how hot does it really get in Iraq?

The temperature never breaks 130 degrees, according to official climate records. A 2007 Air Force Weather Agency report on Iraq's summer weather also marks the record at 124 degrees, with mean highs for July and August at 110 degrees. And Iraq is always dry, so the heat index won't be much higher than the actual temperature.

Advertisement

Then why do so many people talk like 130-degree temperatures are a daily occurrence in Iraq? Bad equipment, for one thing. Soldiers and travelers often measure the temperature with personal thermometers, which tend to give inaccurate readings. Command posts sometimes place thermometers on their outside walls or other locations within their encampments, but these thermometers are also cheap and unscientific; one solider described them as the kind of thing you'd pick up from Wal-Mart or see in someone's garden.

But even a perfectly functioning thermometer, if placed on a solid surface, is likely to deliver higher readings than one set up in an open, breezy area. In general, a solid object absorbs more heat than an equivalent volume of air and can rise to a higher temperature given the same amount of sunlight. An instrument placed on sand or concrete will absorb heat from that surface—obscuring (and inflating) the actual air temperature. So, depending on where it's sitting, a surface thermometer can be off by more than 10 degrees. That's why professional meteorologists prefer to measure the temperature in a ventilated location, and never set up their instruments on heat-conducting surfaces like sand, concrete, or asphalt.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Bret Hayworth of the Sioux City Journal, Paul Rieckhoff of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, and Scott Stephens of the National Climatic Data Center. Thanks also to reader Dave Anderson for asking the question.

David Sessions is a former Slate intern. He is currently a blogger at Politics Daily.

TODAY IN SLATE

Frame Game

Hard Knocks

I was hit by a teacher in an East Texas public school. It taught me nothing.

There Are New Abuse Allegations Against Adrian Peterson

After This Merger, One Company Could Control One-Third of the Planet's Beer Sales

John Oliver Pleads for Scotland to Stay With the U.K.

If You’re Outraged by the NFL, Follow This Satirical Blowhard on Twitter

Jurisprudence

Don’t Expect Adrian Peterson to Go to Prison

In much of America, beating your kids is perfectly legal. 

The Juice

Ford’s Big Gamble

It’s completely transforming America’s best-selling vehicle.

I Tried to Write an Honest Profile of One of Bollywood’s Biggest Stars. It Didn’t Go Well.

Here’s Why College Women Don’t Take Rape Allegations to the Police

The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 1:51 PM Here’s Why College Women Don’t Take Rape Allegations to the Police
  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 15 2014 8:56 PM The Benghazi Whistleblower Who Might Have Revealed a Massive Scandal on his Poetry Blog
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 15 2014 7:27 PM Could IUDs Be the Next Great Weapon in the Battle Against Poverty?
  Life
Outward
Sept. 15 2014 4:38 PM What Is Straight Ice Cream?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Sept. 15 2014 11:38 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 4  A spoiler-filled discussion of "Listen."
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 15 2014 8:58 PM Lorde Does an Excellent Cover of Kanye West’s “Flashing Lights”
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 15 2014 4:49 PM Cheetah Robot Is Now Wireless and Gallivanting on MIT’s Campus
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 15 2014 11:00 AM The Comet and the Cosmic Beehive
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.