Extreme Heat Brings More Deaths in National Parks

Visitors often underestimate the danger, Death Valley reports
By Bob Cronin,  Newser Staff
Posted Jul 23, 2023 4:50 PM CDT
Extreme Heat Brings More Deaths in National Parks
Marko Leszczuk walks along the salt flats at Badwater Basin as the sun sets on July 16 in Death Valley National Park, California.   (AP Photo/John Locher)

Heat-related causes have killed more people in the nation's national parks so far in 2023 than in a typical entire year, and the month that's usually the deadliest hasn't arrived yet. Five people have died in conditions at least 100 degrees, the National Park Service says, the most since it began collecting the data in 2007. Heat deaths historically are undercounted, and officials said the toll could rise. Grand Canyon, Death Valley, and Big Bend national parks accounted for all of the deaths, and for most of the 68 heat-related fatalities recorded since 2007, CNN reports.

The extreme heat this summer is to blame, of course; Phoenix, which is not far from the Grand Canyon, just set a record of 19 consecutive days of temperatures reaching at least 110. Some days, the low was 97 degrees. Climate change is rapidly worsening the heat and drought, per CNN, making national parks a riskier recreation destination during the summer. Heat-specific illness is more prevalent, the park service says, though it doesn't track numbers. It can set in in just 20 or 30 minutes, an expert said, as heat overloads the body until it shuts down. If it's not fatal, a heat illness can still lead to hospitalization.

Misconceptions can be contributing factors. At Death Valley, visitors are warned that they won't be rescued in this kind of heat. The medical helicopter can't get enough lift for takeoff on hot days, and the park service doesn't want to endanger its crews. "Stop" signs are posted at lower elevations telling visitors to hike only at high elevations and not to hike at all after 10 am. "People are responsible for their own safety," a park spokesperson said. Still, visitors often think that it's a matter of toughness and that they "can push through it," Abby Wines said. "But heat is deadly." (More national parks stories.)

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