The Forgotten Summer: How the 1936 Heat Wave Scorched America


The summer of 2023 have been marked by record-breaking heat waves, wildfires, droughts and floods across the globe. Texan Roberta Wright even pretended to bake a loaf of bread in her mailbox to show how hot it was, of course she did not bake the bread in her mailbox and just simply was pulling a joke! But as extreme as these events are, they are not unprecedented in history. In fact, 87 years ago, America experienced one of the most severe heat waves in its modern history, one that killed thousands of people, destroyed crops and livestock, and exacerbated the economic and social woes of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl.

The heat wave of 1936 lasted from June to August and affected most of the continental United States and parts of Canada. It was preceded by one of the coldest winters on record, creating a stark contrast between the seasons. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), July 1936 remains the warmest month ever recorded in the contiguous U.S., with an average temperature of 76.8°F (24.9°C), 3.3°F (1.8°C) above the 20th century average. 

The heat wave was especially brutal in the Midwest and the Great Plains, where temperatures soared above 100°F (38°C) for days or even weeks at a time. Some of the highest temperatures ever recorded in the U.S. were set during this period, such as 121°F (49°C) in Steele, North Dakota on July 6, 1936 ², and 118°F (48°C) in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on July 24, 1936 ³. Many state and city record high temperatures set during the 1936 heat wave still stand today; as of 2022, 13 state record high temperatures were set in 1936 .

The heat wave had devastating consequences for human health and well-being. It is estimated that more than 5,000 people died from heat-related causes, such as heat stroke, dehydration, heart failure and sunstroke . Many more suffered from heat exhaustion, fainting, dizziness and nausea. The elderly, the young, the poor and those with pre-existing conditions were particularly vulnerable. The heat also increased the risk of infectious diseases, such as typhoid fever, dysentery and polio .

The heat wave also wreaked havoc on agriculture and livestock. The drought that had plagued the region since the early 1930s continued unabated, drying up rivers, lakes and wells. Crops withered and failed, leaving farmers with little income and food. Livestock perished from thirst, hunger and heat stress. Millions of chickens died from spontaneous combustion . The dust storms that had ravaged the land since 1931 intensified, creating black blizzards that reduced visibility to zero and buried homes and roads in dust.

The heat wave also had social and economic impacts. It increased the hardship and misery of millions of Americans who were already struggling with poverty and unemployment during the Great Depression. It forced many people to migrate in search of relief, work and water. It sparked social unrest and violence, as people fought over scarce resources or protested against poor living conditions and government policies. It also influenced politics and culture, as it shaped public opinion on issues such as environmental conservation, public health, social welfare and federal intervention.

The heat wave of 1936 was a climatic anomaly that challenged the resilience and adaptability of Americans in a time of crisis. It was also a reminder of the power and unpredictability of nature, and the vulnerability of human society to its changes.
As we face another summer of extreme heat in 2023, we can learn from the lessons and experiences of our ancestors who endured the forgotten summer of 1936. 

Source: Conversation with Bing, 7/16/2023

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