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Learning to Survive Life at 130 Degrees — And Above

A Death Valley ranger, a desert ass expert (really) and a man who researches the virtually indestructible tardigrade teach me to beat the heat in my small desert town

The world is ablaze, both figuratively and literally. Last Sunday, Death Valley recorded a smoldering high of 130 degrees Fahrenheit — the hottest temperature documented on Earth since 1913.

I live in the nearby area of Palm Springs, just a few hours south of — and maybe 10 degrees cooler than — Death Valley. And yeah, life has been hot lately. I walk my dog as the sun rises, while temperatures are still in the relatively cool 90s. I take him out again — after putting his boots on, of course — for only a couple minutes in the afternoon, when temperatures are peaking at around 115. Then I walk him yet again once the sun sets, when temperatures drop down to maybe about 110. Each time, he and I rush back into the apartment panting, sweating and ready to drink one million gallons of water. He loves the great outdoors, though, no matter how hot.

Otherwise, we stay the hell inside, and I spend my life savings on keeping my apartment around 78 degrees. This is how we live in Palm Springs: We go outside during the winter, then hunker down during the summer. Hell, even my apartment pool sits around 90 degrees these days.

But perhaps I have it all wrong — rather than hiding from it, maybe I could learn something about adapting to life at unfathomable temperatures from other people and animals who manage it well? To find out, I reach out to Brandi Stewart of the Death Valley National Park, who stood near the Furnace Creek Visitor Center thermostat as it read a legendary 130 degrees on Sunday.

As for how that 130 degrees felt, Stewart says, “The first thing I feel when it’s this hot is a slap of heat in the face. It almost takes my breath away. Opening the door to my house to go outside is like opening an oven door. My eyes start feeling dry. My throat starts feeling dry as I breathe in the air. Even standing in the shade, I can feel the sweat on my clothes. The wind isn’t cooling; it just makes it feel like a convection oven with swirling blasts of heat.”

The approach Stewart and the National Park in general take to beating such heat is similar to mine. “The park has a heat-stress safety policy that we follow,” she explains. “All routine work outdoors stops at 119 degrees Fahrenheit. Keeping hydrated is also really important. It’s hard to recoup the water loss from even slight dehydration once you start feeling it.”

Also like me, Stewart emphasizes the importance of staying inside. “Overall, we spend a lot of time indoors,” she says. “On our days off, many rangers go hiking or camping in the mountains to spend some time outdoors without the heat. For those who have a water heater with a tank, many rangers will turn off the water heater, so that water becomes the ‘cold’ water, and the water running through the pipes becomes the ‘hot’ water. Unfortunately, my house has a tankless water heater, so while it saves energy, my home only has hot and hotter water in the summer.”

Lastly, Stewart mentions that she and many other park rangers have misters lining their porches to help them stay cool. “But really, anything above 120 is too hot, even with the misters,” she says.

While I appreciate Stewart and her advice, since I already stay inside and drink plenty of water, I’m looking for something a little more extreme. So I turn to Patricia Moehlman, co-chair of the Equid Specialist Group, to learn how African wild asses thrive in some of the hottest deserts on Earth — and if they might provide any help for my situation. “Research on feral domestic donkeys indicates that they’re physiologically well adapted to life in arid habitats,” she explains. “They can sustain a water loss of up to 30 percent of their body weight and can drink enough water in two to five minutes to restore fluid loss.”

In short, these wild asses can basically pound water like a frat boy can shotgun a beer. I could try that, I suppose.

However, Moehlman also explains that African wild asses are able to manage their body temperatures in ways that prevent them from losing too much water through sweating. Moreover, research shows that their bodies use water incredibly efficiently, which is something that I unfortunately have no control over — my body is going to use water as it so chooses.

In a final attempt at learning the secret to managing extreme temperatures, I reach out to Thomas Boothby, who researches tardigrades, which are basically indestructible and can survive in boiling water. “Tardigrades (aka water bears) are able to survive a number of environmental extremes, such as being dried out, frozen, heated to high temperatures — sometimes above the boiling point of water — exposed to thousands of times as much radiation as you or I could survive, being in low or no oxygen conditions and even the vacuum of outer space,” he explains.

How they manage all of this is a little complicated. “Interestingly, some of these abilities are dependent on one another,” Boothby says. “For example, to survive high temperatures, tardigrades must be dried out. If you heat up a tardigrade that’s hydrated, they die around temperatures that aren’t that high — about [104 degrees Fahrenheit]. However, if the animal has dried and is then heated, some species have been shown to survive temperatures up to [305 degrees Fahrenheit].”

“Our current understanding of how tardigrades survive high temperatures while in a dry state has to do with special molecules these animals make as they’re desiccating [or drying out],” Boothby continues. “Many organisms — not just tardigrades — that can survive drying make a lot of special sugars and flexible proteins, technically referred to as intrinsically disordered proteins. When these special molecules build up to high levels inside tardigrades, they make the insides of the tardigrades and their cells extremely viscous. Imagine the inside of a tardigrade cell going from water to honey. This increased viscosity is thought to slow down events inside of the tardigrade cells dramatically.”

This is crucial to surviving high temperatures, Boothby says, “because when a tardigrade — or any other organism, including humans — loses intracellular water or gets too hot, bad things can start happening to the sensitive molecules inside our cells. For example, at high temperatures, proteins and enzymes that carry out essential tasks begin to unfold and break down. However, this unfolding and breaking down of sensitive material in tardigrades is slowed down dramatically, because those proteins and enzymes are stuck in this extremely viscous environment. So while these detrimental processes can still occur, they’re slowed to the point where, instead of seconds or minutes, it can take them days or years to occur.”

Essentially, tardigrades are capable of turning their insides into stabilizing goo, which protects them from the otherwise damaging effects of high heat. While this is both fascinating and good news for the tardigrade, it obviously doesn’t help me one bit. 

Welp, good thing I, a human without goo-transformation abilities, enjoy never going outside.