The allure of extreme temperatures

Parts of the US, especially in the southwest and west, are going through record-breaking heat waves. I am not personally affected by it since where I live in California, because it is on the coast, temperatures have so far not exceeded 70F (21C) this year. But as you go inland, the temperatures start rising dramatically even within just a few miles. Salinas Valley has been seeing temperatures of 100F (38C).

Death Valley National Park in California is notorious for its high temperatures even in normal years, and global warming has just accentuated it. But many people are drawn to visit it on even the hottest days precisely because of the heat.

Death Valley is hardly a stranger to elemental extreme and has long attracted those drawn to the edge. The park bills itself as the “hottest, driest and lowest” – the hottest place on Earth, the driest place in the United States and the lowest point in North America. Visitors make the trek there from around the world to experience its surreal, lunar-looking landscapes and dramatic temperature swings. A famously difficult ultramarathon, the Badwater 135 sees runners race across the cracked salt flat of the park each July.

But even by Death Valley standards, this has been a remarkable summer. The park, which set the world record for the hottest air temperature (a withering 134F, or 56.67C) more than a century ago, approached modern heat records this week. An excessive heat warning, involving daytime temperatures “well over” 120F and nighttime averages still hovering around the triple digits, remains in effect until Sunday.

This week, tourists congregated around a display thermometer in front of the Furnace Creek Visitor Center, posing for photos as the temperature ticked from 123F to 124F. The impenetrable wall of desert heat, a shock to the system after being inside a chilled car, forced each group into the shelter of the visitor center after only a minute or two.

This can be every dangerous because it is easy to underestimate the effect on the human body of suddenly experiencing very high heat.

Two people have died in Death Valley amid the recent heat wave, including a 71-year-old man who collapsed this Tuesday after hiking near Golden Canyon, where a sign reminded visitors that in a heat-related emergency, “rescue in time is not a guarantee”. Earlier this month, a 65-year-old was found dead in his car from “apparent heat illness”.

Apart from people deliberately seeking the thrill of hiking in high heat, people have died in Death Valley because they got lost or their car broke down and they had not prepared any back up plan. But there are still people taking such risks.

Paul Blum and his family, who were visiting the park from France, said they planned their trip months ago to take advantage of summer holidays. But the night before their drive to Death Valley from Las Vegas, Blum had a brief moment of hesitation.

“I thought, ‘Is it reasonable to drive through Death Valley with two kids?’” he said. “But it’s a new car, so I hope so. With an old car I wouldn’t try.”

Being risk averse myself, I would not try it with even a new car even though the park is only a seven hour drive from where I live. Experiencing extreme temperatures for its own sake simply does not appeal to me.


  1. Allison says

    If you’re going to go into Death Valley, whether on foot or by car, bring lots of water.

    There’s an interesting article on wilderness survival on a Sci-Fi author’s site, written by a park ranger in Montana. In Montana, they recommend bringing at least 2 gallons of water per day. I don’t know what they’d recommend for Death Valley, but I’m sure it would be more.

    BTW, she also says, you won’t feel thirsty, even as you’re dying of dehydration.

    Also BTW: I wonder what extremes of temperature modern automobiles are designed to work in. I’m sure there’s a point at which stuff stops working right, whether it’s vapor lock in the gas tank, or the cooling system can’t cool the engine enough, or something.

  2. flex says

    @ Allison,

    Good questions, which I can answer at some level. Components in the engine compartment are tested for proper operation to 105 or 125 degrees Celsius. That’s 220 or 250 degrees Fahrenheit. Components in the cabin are tested to 85C or 185F.

    That doesn’t mean that systems cannot fail at lower temperatures, but generally they don’t.

    Vapor lock is not a problem with fuel injection, I don’t know of any modern cars which are carbureted so I don’t think that would be an issue.

    Engine cooling might eventually be a problem, especially if something starts to block radiator systems. While I don’t work with engines, motor oil normally sits around 125C and degrades around 150C. Once the motor oil starts to degrade you will eventually lose your engine. If you use a synthetic oil the breakdown temperature is much higher, call it 200C. Coolants tend to be around 90C, but under pressure so a sudden release of pressure can cause them to ‘boil’.

    Remember that cooling is dependent on difference between the ambient temperature and the temperature of the thing you want to cool. Engines running normally at 125C in a 25C environment (considered a normal running ambient temperature for vehicle testing) have a 100C difference between the ambient temperature and the engine. Bumping the ambient temperature to 50C, close to the maximum recorded value in Death Valley, doesn’t really change the cooling requirements that much, the difference has dropped 25%. But if something interferes with the cooling system problems can occur pretty quickly.

    Over thirty years ago I drove through Death Valley in an old 1972 Lincoln Mark IV. The AC did not work. In Death Valley we were fine. A couple of days later we went through the Utah Desert on I-70, the 100 miles between Salina and Grand Junction, Colorado. For a few miles it was stop-and-go traffic because they were re-asphalting the road. IIRC, the external temperature was 115F, it must have been over 130F sitting in stop-and-go traffic on fresh asphalt. As this was an older car, not to modern standards, we had the windows open and the heater on full blast. We were guzzling lemonade. The car ran fine, but all of a sudden the tape deck stopped playing. The cassette tape had melted.

  3. John Morales says

    BTW, she also says, you won’t feel thirsty, even as you’re dying of dehydration.

    I damn well know I’d be thirsty — but then, I don’t suffer from hypodipsia.

  4. chigau (違う) says

    Before I actually looked-up hypodipsia, I decided it means “insufficient alcohol consumption”.
    oh well, 🍶 kampai!

  5. Holms says

    #1 Allison
    Air conditioners are very prone to expiring if used for long periods on hot days.

    #2 flex

    As this was an older car, not to modern standards, we had the windows open and the heater on full blast.

    Er, brainfart? Or do Americans call it a heater even if it is being used for cooling (presuming it has both functions)?

  6. sonofrojblake says

    @Holms, 6: on this occasion it’s not, I think, a quirk of the language Americans speak, the one they call “English”.

    In the olden days, car ventilation systems were simple things. You want “cold” air? You get ambient air drawn from outside the car. That air’s not cold? Tough. You want hot air? You get air drawn over the car radiator, which (once the car has warmed up) is warmer. It’s not warmed up yet? Tough.

    Your car radiator, which sheds the heat of the engine, works best if it’s in a moving stream of air. If you’re driving, that’s fine. If you’re in stop/start traffic, not so much.

    So -- if it’s hot, and your engine is getting hot because you’re not moving, one way to help your radiator work better is to actively draw air across it by putting the heater on full. The downside is that the heat your engine sheds goes straight into the passenger compartment, on what is by definition already a hot day. It’s been 30+ years since I was in a car where doing that mattered or worked, but it was definitely a thing that if you were stuck in traffic on a hot day in a marginally reliable car, you opened all the windows and put the heat on full to COOL the engine (because the engine matters more than driver/passenger comfort…)

  7. John Morales says

    Yeah, well… I’ve worked outdoors (grape-picking) in 43C dry heat.
    I’ve travelled on a bike in similar temperatures, I’ve walked for hours in similar temperatures.

    So, I have some expertise at being dehydrated.

    (I betcha South Australia gets hotter than Montana)

    The actual quotation from the article:

    2. If you’re dehydrated, you’ll know it.
    I am particularly vulnerable to this. I freaked out the guys on my 37-mile trip through Big Bend when I told them, at the end of each day, that I’d drunk all my water and still not gone to the bathroom in upwards of 14 hours.
    It doesn’t just happen in the desert, either; many a time, while I worked on a mountain lion job in Colorado, I’d come home from a full day of hiking and realize I hadn’t urinated a single time.
    In not a single one of my experiences did I feel thirsty. Especially when it’s cold or cloudy, it’s hard to remember that you’re still sweating, you’re still expending energy, and you still need to drink water.

    The author is not talking about super hot conditions, but about personally sweating and not feeling thirsty. Which weirded people out, so obviously atypical.

    I speak from personal experience in actual very hot conditions, and I assure you, I notice if I don’t urinate all day. And, of course, being a bloke, I notice when the urine is the colour of well-steeped tea.

  8. flex says

    @Holms, #6,

    What sonofrojblake said.

    The radiators in most of today’s cars use an electric fan to help pull air through them, that keeps the cooling at a constant minimum, but in the older vehicles the fans were connected by a belt to the engine (Checking on-line, it seems that some models still do this). The slower the engine is running the slower the fan, and if the car is stopped there is no wind through the radiator from the car moving. These days the systems are better controlled, but on vehicles built before the 1980’s a car could overheat without anything wrong with it, simply by idling for a long time on a really hot day (>100F). The coolant would heat up enough to start discharging through the pressure cap and when you lose enough coolant the radiator efficiency drops, which allows the engine to heat up more,… you get the picture.

    But, there is another radiator in those cars, and it circulates the same coolant as the engine, and it also had a fan (for all I know this may have changed too). That was the heater for the passenger compartment. If your engine was getting hot, which you could tell by monitoring the temperature gauge on the dash (those have also mainly gone away), you could help cool the engine by turning on the second radiator in the passenger compartment. The passengers would get uncomfortable, but you could watch the gauge drop and the engine cool down.

    Cars have gotten much more reliable since those days. I recall talking to an engineer at Ford who described a test where they had an engine on the test stand, no load and at 23C temperature, filled with a modern synthetic oil. They started the engine, then drained the oil. They wanted to see how long the engine would run with only the remaining film of oil on the parts. They shut it down when it reached the equivalent of 100,000 miles. Now those are test conditions, without loads or cooling issues, not even any bumps or road vibration. I wouldn’t expect that performance in a car on the road. But with the older engine designs and traditional oil I would have expected an engine without flowing oil to overheat within 10 minutes.

    Now I feel old. Grampa’s tired. Maybe next time we can talk about why there is an L and a 2 after the D on the PRNDL2. What they are for and when to use them. Assuming they are still there. I drive a stick.

  9. Mano Singham says

    Holms @#6 and flex @#11,

    My wife once called from the side of the road to say that the engine temperature gauge was rising close to the red zone so she had stopped. I knew enough to tell her to open all the windows and turn the heater on full blast. She was naturally skeptical since it is so counter-intuitive but it worked, with the gauge going down, That enabled her to drive the car home without needing to tow or risk destroying the engine.

    I learnt this from that funny radio show Car Talk.

  10. SailorStar says

    Can confirm @11 and @12. In 1985, driving a 1983 Ford Mustang (in other words, the car was still new-ish at the time) up the hill to the Palomar Observatory in 100+ degree (F) temps. Going about 40 mph, only car on the twisty mountain road. The engine started to overheat, so I rolled down the windows and cranked up the heat…and it brought the engine temps down to the safe level.

    I was an intern there that summer, and many are the days I had to crank up the heat to make it up the hill.

  11. charles says

    Some of learned the trick with the heater (but never tried it) from “Gumball Rally”

  12. SailorStar says

    @14; I learned the trick from my father, an engineer. I have no idea where he learned it. But it worked, and that’s what mattered.

    As for people voluntarily going out into Death Valley during a heat wave…I don’t understand it. Want to push your body to the limit? Try hanging out in the closed car in your own driveway--you’ll still be risking your life, but you’ll be closer to help when you collapse.

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