The past five years on our planet have been the warmest ever recorded in history. 1.2 trillion tonnes of ice are now melting each year, whilst the Atlantic Ocean unleashed more hurricanes in 2020 than ever before.
As the delicate balance of our atmosphere accelerates towards an uncertain future, pockets of the world are being ravaged by fire and floods.
No matter how far we evolve in protecting ourselves from the elements, we are continuously reminded by extreme weather events that we will always be at their mercy.
“Most locations are setting many, many more all-time heat records as opposed to cold records. We live in a world that is becoming more and more extreme!” – Dr. Randy Cerveny, World Meteorological Organization’s Rapporteur of Weather & Climate Extremes
Featuring the Kenyan highlands, the Great Plains of the USA and the Antarctic tundra, this whistle-stop tour of the world explores Earth’s most terrific and most terrifying climates.
Highest recorded temperature on Earth
The aptly named Death Valley, in California, USA, is one of the hottest places in the world. The highest temperature ever, 56.7°C (134°F), was recorded there at Greenland Ranch on 10 July 1913.
Although some doubts have been cast around the accuracy of this reading, a more recent temperature of 54.4°C (129.9°F) was registered in Death Valley on 16 August 2020. If confirmed to be accurate by the WMO, this will likely be recognized as the highest reliably measured temperature on record.
Death Valley also holds the record for hottest month (single location). Between 1 July and 31 July 2018, the average daily temperature was 42.3°C (108.1°F), based on readings taken at a weather station near the Furnace Creek Visitor Center.
Greatest temperature range in a day
Over the course of 24 hours, the temperature in Loma, Montana, USA swung a record 57.2°C (103°F). Reading -47.7°C (-54°F) at 9 a.m. on 14 January 1972, the temperature rose to 9.4°C (49°F) by 8 a.m. the next day.
The extremely low temperature on 14 January in Loma was caused by a downslope chinook wind event.
Lowest temperature recorded on Earth
Vostok research station is located in one of the coldest places on the planet. During the southern hemisphere winter on 21 July 1983, temperatures at the Antarctic site plunged to a low of -89.2°C (-128.6°F).
That’s 54°C colder than the winter average there, as well as the coldest temperature ever recorded on Earth.
Greatest rainfall in 48 hours
Cherrapunji, in Meghalaya, India is one of the wettest places in the world. Although the high-altitude town is used to heavy downpours, the record 2493 mm (8 ft 2 in) of rain received on 15-16 June 1995 is the most extreme 48-hour period ever – as verified by the WMO.
Cherrapunji also holds the record for greatest monthly rainfall at 9300 mm (30 ft 6 in), during July 1861.
The local residents have, over many decades, wound the roots of trees together to create living bridges. These root bridges enable the villagers to traverse the many rivers and gorges.
The Sonoran Desert stretches across parts of Arizona and California, USA into the states of Sonora and Baja California, Mexico. It’s annual rainfall ranges from 76-500 mm (2.9-19.6 in) across different regions of the desert.
An unusual feature of the Sonoran Desert is its bimodal rainfall pattern (i.e. two wet seasons; one from December until March and another from July to August).
If you venture into the heart of the Atacama Desert (the world's driest desert), you will find the town of Quillagua; the driest place in the world. Between 1964 and 2001, the average annual rainfall was just 0.5 mm (0.002 in).
By comparison, the Sahara Desert – the world's largest hot desert – receives 100–250 mm (4–10 in) of precipitation on average annually.
Highest occurrence of red rain
Red rain is a phenomenon whereby red rain drops, called "blood rain" by some, fall from the sky. Cases of blood rain have been recorded throughout history, including one in Homer’s Iliad, composed c. 1260-1180 BCE.
The Indian state of Kerala experienced multiple showers of red rain between 25 July to 23 September 2001, making the region the first and only place on Earth where it has occurred on three consecutive months.
Extra-terrestrial spores and suspended dust are both amongst the varied explanations for red rain. However, after analysing samples in 2015, scientists concluded that it's caused by the presence of microalgae spores from the species Trentepohlia annulata.
Snow & Ice
“Measuring snow is problematic in that it changes as time passes. For example, snow from a snowfall will compress as new snow falls on top of the old. So, oddly, snowfall measurements can actually be wrong if the observations are taken too frequently.” – Dr. Randy Cerveny
Greatest snowfall in 12 months
An astonishing 31.1 metres (102 ft) of snow fell on the Paradise region of Mount Rainier National Park, Washington, USA, from 19 February 1971 to 18 February 1972. At a height of 4,392 m (14,410 ft), Rainier has a permanent covering of snow.
Worst snow storm disaster – damage toll
A monumental winter storm devastated the entire east coast of the USA on 12-13 March 1993. Described by one meteorologist as “a storm with the heart of a blizzard and the soul of a hurricane”, it killed 500 people and caused $1.2 billion (£825.14 million) worth of damage.
The heaviest hailstones on record weighed up to 1.02 kg (2 lb 3.9 oz). The grapefruit-sized hailstones were reported to have killed 92 people in the Gopalganj area of Bangladesh on 14 April 1986.
Most hailstorms in a year
Perhaps surprisingly to some, the most hailstorms in a year occur in the Kericho Hills region of Kenya. This area receives hailstorms around 132 days each year, on average.
The Kenyan highlands are renowned for being one of the top tea-producing areas in the world, and it's possible that dust particles, sent aloft by the activities of tea pickers, act as nucleation points in the atmosphere for the formation of hailstones.
Wind, Hurricanes & Tornadoes
Most intense hurricane
The intensity of a hurricane is determined by the storm's lowest barometric pressure.
Hurricane Wilma is the most intense hurricane ever recorded by the National Hurricane Center.
The pressure inside the eye of the storm, as it passed over the Gulf of Mexico, was recorded by a USAF aircraft as being 882 mbar or 26.05 inHg (typical atmospheric pressure is around 1013 mbar or 29.91 inHg).
Forming on 16 October 2005, the Category 5 hurricane dissipated 11 days later, after causing around $29 billion in damage across Mexico, Cuba and Florida, USA.
Mt Washington, New Hampshire, USA, is the windiest place in the world. A surface wind speed of 231 mph (371 km/h) was recorded on 12 April 1934, setting the record for the fastest surface wind speed - high altitude.
The fastest surface wind speed at sea level is 207 mph (333 km/h), recorded on 8 March 1972 at Thule Air Base, Greenland. Thule currently serves as the United States Space Force’s northernmost base.
The fastest wind speed (not surface speed) ever recorded is 302 +/- 20 mph (486 +/-32 km/h). It was produced by a large tornado near Bridge Creek, Oklahoma in May 1999.
Largest measured tornado
Tornadoes are much smaller than hurricanes and last for a shorter duration, however, they produce higher wind speeds.
On 31 May 2013, a twister with a span of 4.18 km (2.59 mi) – an area big enough to fit more than 1,900 football pitches – struck El Reno in Oklahoma, USA. The superstorm was measured by the US National Weather Service.
Oklahoma belongs to the strip of states in the Great Plains of the USA known as “Tornado Alley”. Tornadoes are more intense and more frequent here than in any other region on Earth.
Farthest distance survived in a tornado
Matt Suler (USA) accidentally achieved this record on 12 March 2006, after his mobile home was engulfed by a tornado, knocking him unconscious in the process. He awoke in a field 398 m (1,307 ft) away with only minor injuries.
First documented fire tornado
Not to be confused with fire whirls, fire tornadoes are true tornadoes formed from pyrocumulonimbus clouds. Such clouds form over large sources of heat, such as wildfires or volcanic eruptions.
On 18 January 2003, a fire tornado formed in the plume of the McIntyres Hut Fire, part of the January 2003 Canberra fires in Australia.
Radar data, footage and other weather observations confirmed that this was a true fire tornado rather than a fire whirl. Measuring nearly half a kilometre across at its base and moving at around 30 km/h, it was strong enough to toss cars, de-roof houses and scorch everything in its path.
Largest forest wildfire (single fire)
Wildfires are notoriously difficult to compare, particularly between those from different eras, as they come in several forms and they can be measured in various ways. Two fires currently share this record title as they are thought to have burned a similar-sized area of forest.
- The Chinchaga Fire started in June 1950, in BC, Canada, and grew out of control, eventually dying out five months later in Alberta. It burned approximately 1.2 million hectares (3 million acres) of boreal forest.
- The 1987 Daxing’anling Wildfire (aka Great Black Dragon Fire), blazed throughout the Greater Khingan mountain range of north-east China and across the border into the Siberian USSR (now Russia). The Great Black Dragon Fire is reported to have killed more than 200 people, injured more than 250 and left tens of thousands displaced.
Thunder & Lightning
Supercells are powerful thunderstorms that form around a mesocyclone (a deep, rotating updraft). They can be several kilometres across and may last several hours, making them the largest thunderstorms in the world as well as the longest-lasting thunderstorms.
Supercells often occur in “Tornado Alley”, USA, where they can be responsible for spawning tornadoes.
Longest lightning flash
On 31 October 2019, a single lightning flash spanned a horizontal distance of 709 km (440.6 mi), from north-eastern Argentina and across southern Brazil to the Atlantic Ocean.
This length of this “megaflash” was equivalent to the distance between Boston, Massachusetts, and Washington, DC, USA or from London, UK, to the border of Switzerland (near Basel).
Typically, the length of lightning bolts is around 9 km (5.5 mi) or below.
Longest lasting lightning flash
This was no flash in the pan – a single lightning flash lasted for 16.73 seconds, occurring over northern Argentina on 4 March 2019. The average duration for a lightning bolt is just 0.2 seconds.
The event was verified by the WMO on 25 June 2020.
Highest concentration of lightning
The most electric place on Earth can be found in Venezuela, at the mouth of the Catatumbo River where it enters Lake Maracaibo. Locally known as the “river of fire”, this area receives almost 250 lightning flashes per square kilometre each year.
“Catatumbo lightning” happens up to 300 nights per year in displays that can last nine hours. The light from these storms can be seen up to 40 km (25 mi) away and has been used for ship navigation; it is also known as the "Maracaibo Beacon" for this reason.
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