Steve Curry seeks shelter from the sun beneath an interpretive sign at Death Valley National Park
Steve Curry, 71, of Sunland, seeks shelter from the sun beneath an interpretive sign at Death Valley National Park on Tuesday. It was well over 100 degrees by 10 a.m. as Curry arrived at Zabriskie Point.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

116 degrees at night: Death Valley’s extreme heat goes off the charts from climate change

Death Valley, one of the most extreme places on the planet, is already seeing the impact of climate change, with summers even hotter than usual.

It was 10 p.m. and 116 degrees as a brutal wind whipped through the darkness.

Here in Death Valley National Park — dubbed the hottest place on Earth — intrepid tourists waded into a hotel swimming pool seeking what little relief they could find.

Park temperatures had soared to 126 degrees that afternoon, just a few degrees shy of the daily record.

“I never knew such temperatures before,” said Nicolas Combaret, 40, who was visiting Death Valley from France with his wife and 5-year-old son. It was one of several stops on their tour of the Southwest.

“When we saw on the news that the temperature would be 125, 126, we thought, ‘Wow, that’s impressive — it will be a good experience to live that, to feel the hottest ever here.’”

Nicolas Combaret holds up his son Paulin Combaret while they play in the pool
Nicolas Combaret holds up his son Paulin Combaret while they play in the pool at The Ranch at Death Valley in Death Valley National Park on Monday evening with the mercury at 116.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

That the summertime heat can elicit comparisons to what life might feel like on the surface of the sun is nothing new.

Much of the reason for this is that Death Valley is a long, narrow basin that sinks 282 feet below sea level. The sun-bleached moonscape near the border of Nevada is hemmed in by jagged, rust-colored mountains, which trap hot air and circulate it like a convection oven.

But even Death Valley — one of the most extreme places on the planet — is not immune to climate change. This past week, many tuned in to see if its all-time temperature record of 134 degrees would be broken, a possibility that was heralded by some as a barometer of climate change.

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Though the park fell short of that record, many who know Death Valley best say they’re already seeing the impacts of climate change on a near-daily basis.

“As the climate changes, as world temperatures get hotter, Death Valley will get hotter,” said Giovanna Ponce, a public information officer with the park. She noted that seven of Death Valley’s hottest summers on record occurred in the past 10 years.

The hot days are also getting more frequent. The year 2020 holds the park’s record for the most days over 100 degrees — 169 days — according to data from the National Weather Service. The year 2021 broke the record for the most days over 125 degrees — 11.

A horizontal frame of cascading rows of arid mountains without vegetation.
The sun rises over Zabriskie Point in Death Valley National Park on Tuesday.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

A horizontal detail of cracked, dry earth.
The earth is cracked and dry in Death Valley where a daily heat record was broken on Sunday. The mercury that day reached 128 degrees at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

If temperatures keep rising, there will be cascading impacts, including threats to birds, fish and ancient trees, officials said. And after years-long groundwater depletion, last August saw the rainiest day in Death Valley’s history, 1.7 inches, which triggered flash floods that scoured the landscape and damaged roads.

“Because the place is extreme, everything then is adapted and specialized for desert survival,” said Nichole Andler, a park ranger. “And when the extreme gets more extreme, it leads to struggle.”

In that way, the park has always been a place of extremes. But no place is immune to human-caused climate change, which is driving up global temperatures, warming oceans and shrinking ice sheets. This June was the Earth’s hottest June on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the next five years are expected to be the hottest ever recorded.

In Death Valley, one of the places feeling the change most acutely is Telescope Peak, the highest point in the park that is home to its population of ancient bristlecone pine trees. The trees’ mortality rate has increased about 70% in the last decade due to severe drought and bark beetle infestations, Ponce said.

“Those are some of the oldest trees on the planet, and previously thought to be very resistant,” she said.

A coyote moves quickly at dusk near the Furnace Creek Visitor Center in Death Valley National Park.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

One 2022 study found that thousands of the trees have been killed at Telescope Peak since 2013, including some as old as 1,612 years. Their deaths indicate that even older bristlecone pines in the White Mountains, Great Basin National Park and elsewhere could be at risk, the study said.

Another study from 2019 found that about a third of Death Valley’s bird species have declined in the last 100 years due to heat stress associated with climate change; and yet another, from 2018, concluded that the biggest declines of Mojave bird populations are occurring in Death Valley.

But the park’s scalding temperatures haven’t been enough to keep heat-seekers from trekking to the area to experience Mother Nature’s worst.

“It’s like hell,” said Robert Szulc, 51, who was leading a tour group from Poland up a hill to Zabriskie Point, a scenic overview. Szulc said he’s experienced extreme heat in the deserts of Africa, “but in the desert, you have hot days and cold nights, but here it’s different — the night here is hot.”

Evening temperatures in recent days have stayed over 100, offering little chance for relief. The low temperature on Sunday night was 103; and on Monday 101.

“It’s a dry heat,” said Steve Curry, 71, who was visiting Death Valley from the Sunland neighborhood of Los Angeles. No stranger to heat, Curry had hiked from Golden Canyon to Zabrieski Point early Tuesday morning and was scrunched into a tiny spot of shade beneath a metal interpretive sign.

“Everything is hot here,” he said, rapping on the metal.

The branches of a parched tree are splayed before a backdrop of barren hills.
A parched tree stands near the Furnace Creek Visitor Center.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Such heat isn’t only affecting birds and trees and humans. The critically endangered Devils Hole pupfish can withstand the park’s very warm, very salty water, “but if it were to get any hotter, that could definitely impact their reproductive cycles and lead to a decrease in the population,” Ponce said.

The recent flash floods triggered by record rainfall also “confused” the fish, she added.

Death Valley, which typically receives less than 2 inches of rain per year, relies primarily on groundwater from natural springs to supply the smattering of hotels, golf courses and swimming pools designed for visitors.

Two people photograph mountains on the horizon.
Kelly Myers and Melissa Grossman, both of Indiana, take photos on the side of the road in Death Valley National Park recently.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

But even that supply has been threatened by worsening drought — particularly as development in surrounding areas leads to deeper wells and overpumping, park officials said.

Andler, the park ranger, noted that she tried to take advantage of a cooler spring this year to visit as many parts of the park as she could.

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“I’d be like, ‘I’ve got to get there,’ because we may not have this much time to get to places later, because summers will probably be a little bit longer, and winters a little bit shorter,” she said.

Some of Death Valley’s few longtime residents said those changes are beginning to feel more and more acute. One hotel worker, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak with the press, said he’s lived here for about 10 years.

“The longer I’m here, the more this heat kicks my butt,” he said.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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