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.