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Desert Ecology: Effects on Human Physiology

Desert Ecology: Effects on Human Physiology

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Published by Lyle Brecht
Draft discussion of effects of dehydration in hot, arid environments. For comments only.
Draft discussion of effects of dehydration in hot, arid environments. For comments only.

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Published by: Lyle Brecht on Feb 15, 2010
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 As the world becomes more crowded and corroded by consumption and capitalism,this landscape of minimalism will take on greater significance, reminding us... just  how essential wild country is to our psychology, how precious desert is to the soul of  America.
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TEMPERATURE.
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In order for the human body to function efficiently, its tem-perature must be maintained at a fairly constant average core body tempera-ture (taken internally) of 37.0
 
°C (98.6
 
°F) +/- a small deviation from this aver-age based on age, sex, and where the temperature is measured on the body.When the body’s core temperature fluctuates too far from this average, theblood is unable to effectively carry oxygen and nutrients to the cells, thecell’s metabolism shuts down, and many physiological symptoms appear,ranging from discomfort and exhaustion to death.In cold environments where the body’s core temperature falls too low, theprocess of physiological changes is called
 hypothermia
. In hot environmentswhere the body’s core temperature rises too high, the process of physiologi-cal changes is called
 hyperthermia
. Generally, the body has two primarymechanisms for regulating the body’s temperature: vasodilation (to rid thebody of heat) and vasoconstriction (to retain the body’s heat), and sweating(evaporative cooling) through the body’s two million or so sweat glands.
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OSMOREGULATION. The human body’s amazing ability to regulate its coretemperature in hot environments through evaporative cooling (sweating) en-ables the body to survive in virtually any known terrestrial environment onearth. However, in order for sweating to cool the body, the body must pos-sess adequate water to sweat. At rest, a hydrated person in a comfortably cool environment may lose 2.5liters (2.6 quarts) of water a day: 60% as urine, 25% through insensible
DESERT ECOLOGY: THE EFFECTS ON HUMAN PHYSIOLOGY 
LYLE A. BRECHT ---DRAFT 1.1---APPLIED ECOLOGY RESEARCH-- 410.963.8680 --- Monday, February 15, 2010 Page 1 of 4
1
 Terry Tempest Williams,
RED: Passion and Patience in the Desert 
(New York: Pan-theon Books, 2001), 6.
2
Unlessotherwise noted, the data in this and following sections is adapted fromJohn Sowell,
Desert Ecology: An Introduction to Life in the Arid Southwest 
(Salt LakeCity: The University of Utah Press, 2001), 152-168.
3
There are basically two forms of sweating: sensate (perspiration as beads of sweatform on the skin) and insensate (sweating without beads of perspiration on the skin).
 
evaporation through the skin, 10% from breathing, and 5% from feces.However, in hot, arid (low humidity) environments, a hydrated person maylose 7 liters (7.4 quarts) of water a day: 90% through insensate sweating.Even with moderate activity (walking) in hot, arid climates the body can con-sume 1 liter (1.1 quarts) of water per hour for insensate sweating to keep thebody’s core temperature within its normal range. For the body to sweat andcool its core, three things are required:the hypothalamus in the brain must release hormonal and neural signalsto the pituitary gland to secrete antiduretic hormone (ADH), which is se-creted into the bloodstream to the kidneys to retain water in the body.This may result in a dehydrated person producing as little as 0.5 liters(0.5 quarts) of urine in a day;the kidneys must regulate salt concentration in the blood. Since dehydra-tion reduces bodily fluid volume and increases salt concentration in theblood, the kidneys purge salt from the body in sweat and urine. This iswhy additional salt is required when the body re-hydrates in order toavoid heat cramps. Typically, in most cases regular food contains suffi-cient salt to replace this salt deficit caused by excessive sweating anddehydration;a temperature gradient that pulls water vapor from the body to the cooleroutside air must exist. This is a problem in hot, arid environments wherethe outside air may be hotter than the body’s temperature. This is whywearing loose, preferably light colored clothes in the desert is so impor-tant as the clothes create an air space between the skin and the outsidetemperature where a temperature gradient may still exist that enablesevaporative cooling Adequate clothing can save more than 0.25 liters(0.26 quarts of water every hour in the desert due to reduced sweating.DEHYDRATION. Dehydration in hot, arid environments is common. Not onlyis drinking adequate water to satisfy the body’s needs difficult, but, with ex-ertion, may not be completely possible. The effects of dehydration on thebody are progressive, rapid, and potentially lethal. Without adequate hydra-tion, the volume of blood in the body decreases as its viscosity increases,and blood pressure decreases. There is less efficient blood flow, less vasodi-
DESERT ECOLOGY: THE EFFECTS ON HUMAN PHYSIOLOGY 
LYLE A. BRECHT ---DRAFT 1.1---APPLIED ECOLOGY RESEARCH-- 410.963.8680 --- Monday, February 15, 2010 Page 2 of 4
 
lation in the skin, and less heat transfer from the core. This results in heatbuild-up in the core resulting in faster pulse rate and quickened breathingthat signal an insufficient blood flow and oxygen deficiency to the body’scells. The progressive symptoms of dehydration include:
 Water Deficit (as % of body mass)Symptoms
2%-3%thirst, headaches, general feeling of being uncomfortable,irritability, heat syncope (fainting) due to insufficient bloodflow to the brain from pooling of blood in the extremities.Treatment is to cool the person and provide fluids w/ salt,having the person lie down w/ the feet elevated to im-prove blood flow to the brain5%fatigue, weariness, sleepiness, reduced coordination (de-hydration exhaustion)6%-7%dizziness, labored breathing, skin becomes pale or bluish,walking becomes difficult8%salivation stops, speech is indistinct, mental processesbecome unreliable14%delirium and high fever, inability to walk, kidneys fail,sweating ceases, heatstroke is common, drinking is im-possible (water must be introduced intravenously, rectally,or through a stomach tube)15%Death usually occurs (in hot environments). In cold envi-ronments, a person may survive with as much as a 25%deficit.
In hot, arid environments, dehydration, sweat gland fatigue, sunburn, anddisrobing (removing clothes so the skin is exposed to the sun) all contributeto increased water deficit and the physiological symptoms that accompanythis deficit.
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 ACCLIMATION. The most important means to acclimate to hot, arid envi-ronments is to drink more water than normal. Often, much more water thanone normally would drink. An adult, on average, needs to drink as much aseight 8-ounce glasses of water a day. However, for some adults, especiallythose over 50 years of age, one’s thirst mechanism does not work as effi-
DESERT ECOLOGY: THE EFFECTS ON HUMAN PHYSIOLOGY 
LYLE A. BRECHT ---DRAFT 1.1---APPLIED ECOLOGY RESEARCH-- 410.963.8680 --- Monday, February 15, 2010 Page 3 of 4
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In deserts, drought is more than just lack of precipitation, but results in “an ex-treme depletion of soil moisture that can last for long, uncertain periods of time.”See Bruce M. Pavlik,
The California Deserts: An Ecological Rediscovery 
(Berkeley:University of California Press, 2008), 152.

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