Infamous Heat Waves in History
The North American Heat Wave of 2011 proved to be a record-breaker throughout North America. Several regions in the United States and Canada recorded record highs in temperature and/or humidity. It was also deadly. More than 40 people died as a direct result of a succession of hot days that regularly reached 113 Fahrenheit within the span of two summer months.
The death toll pales in comparison to other previously recorded heat waves. However, it’s receiving more press coverage than the others. This is a complete change considering that heat waves were never seen as important or compelling news in the past. This natural disaster is not as dramatic as an earthquake or a tornado; however, it kills more people annually than the other two.
Many of the famously recorded heat waves took place in the 20th and 21st century. They have struck in nearly every part of the globe and they’ve been responsible for numerous natural catastrophe and economic disasters. Its effect has no boundaries; developed and underdeveloped countries alike have been hit by staggering heat for long periods of time.
According to Eric Klinenberg’s 2002 Slate.com article, more than 400 Americans die from heat-related illnesses in a typical year. In other words, heat waves kill more people in the US than any other natural disaster, combined. However, heat waves are slow and lingering and (as Klinenberg points out) it is preventable.
“Dangerous heat always comes announced, and it’s fairly easy to prevent human damage,” he wrote. “Victims of heat tend to wilt gradually, alone at home, out of touch with family, friends, and social-services providers who could save their lives…by treating them with water or bringing them to an air-conditioned place.”
1936 North American Heat Wave
North America has been hit by several major heat waves. The one that struck in 1936 is considered the most severe in modern American history. The timing of it was terrible, too. It took place during a time when the United States and Canada were in the midst of the Great Depression. Also, the 1930s was one of the driest decades. This was the era of several severe droughts and the Dust Bowls.
During the summer of 1936, seven states hit record highs while an additional 36 states had above normal temperatures. The Canadian provinces of Ontario and Manitoba set record highs above 110 degrees Fahrenheit.
The heat wave was devastating on humans. In an era before air-conditioning, urban areas such as Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Toronto and other North American urban areas sizzled. More than 1,693 people, mostly the elderly, perished in these cities (some estimates claim as much as 5,000 may have died of symptoms caused by excessive heat).
Also, farmers were affected economically. Crops were destroyed by the heat and the price of corn and wheat soared. Some farmlands remained barren or parched until September when the temperature returned to its normal levels.
... “think of the great Chicago fire of 1871. It killed less than half as many people. Other recent catastrophes, such as the Northridge, Calif. Earthquake of 1994 or Hurricane Andrews of 1992 killed one-tenth and one-twentieth the numbers of people respectively.”— Eric Klinenberg
1995 Chicago Heat Wave
Between 1936 and 1995, there were several deadly heat waves: New York City (1972, 1984), St. Louis (1980), Philadelphia (1993), Dallas (1998), and Milwaukee (1995) (Klinenberg, 2002). The heat wave that hit Chicago in 1995 proved to be the worst.
Fifty-nine years after the summer of 1936, the city was racked by higher- than-average temperatures.Within one week in July, 739 people died. The situation was so bad that refrigerated truck-trailers were placed near morgues and hospital. The trailers were used to store bodies, which had inundated these facilities.
As usual, the elderly were hit hard. Also, the poor or those without air conditioning were among the victims.
Klinenberg compared the deaths from this heat wave with another famous disaster in the city, as well as with other natural catastrophes in the 1990s.
“To place the 1995 heat wave in context,” he wrote, “think of the great Chicago fire of 1871. It killed less than half as many people. Other recent catastrophes, such as the Northridge, Calif. Earthquake of 1994 or Hurricane Andrews of 1992 killed one-tenth and one-twentieth the numbers of people respectively.”
Still, this heat wave would later be dwarfed by the one that hit France and Europe in 2003.
The French Heat Wave of 2003
Actually, the heat wave that hit France in August of 2003 affected much of Europe. Record heat was reached in several countries, and many of them had substantial death tolls (final estimates for Europe was 71,310, making it the deadliest thus far). France was hit the hardest.
According to a 2003 USA Today report, a government-commissioned report from the National Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM) estimated that the death toll reached 14,802 in France, alone.
Again, the elderly took the brunt of the heat. Many in Paris succumb to it during the height of the heat wave when temperatures reached 104 degrees Fahrenheit. Another reason the numbers were so high was that France was a country that rarely had households and buildings with built-in air conditioning systems.
At first, government estimates had the numbers at 11,435. However, the heat didn’t kill some people instantly. According to the USA Today report, many were “greatly weakened during the peak temperatures but did not die until days later.”
Numbers can be Deceptive
The numbers of death associated with the heat waves mentioned can be deceptive. Some stats measure those who died as a direct result of the heat-waves. Others include those that may have died in association with the heat-wave. This may involve the exasperation of an illness the victim may have had or an accidental death that may have occurred when the victim tried to deal with the heat.
During the 1936 Heat Wave, it was reported that several men, women, children and the elderly died from drowning. Many didn't know how to swim, but took refuge from the heat by jumping into the nearest body of water.
Also, there are cases in which it is undetermined if a victim died as a result of the heat wave or from other factors that may or may not be related to the heat-wave.
2006 North American Heat Wave and Beyond
In the summer of 2006, much of the United States and Canada went through another deadly heat wave. In this case, 225 people died. July 15 was the first day. On this day, Pierre, South Dakota baked in 117 degrees Fahrenheit of heat.
During a period between July 15 and July 22, nearly every state (except for Alaska, Minnesota, and North Dakota) recorded temperatures of 90 degrees Fahrenheit or greater.
In California, 164 deaths were attributed to the heat related illnesses. The state's Central Valley and Southern California were racked by humid heat, which is unusual for these two regions.
The continent would experience other localized heat waves in the years to come. Finally, in 2011, much of the United States and Canada would be affected by a similar heat wave. By this time, heat waves were finally recognized as a natural disaster. There was more coverage by the media.
These heat waves are not the first, nor will they be the last. Trends indicate that the average temperature will continue to rise each summer. Also, the people at risk - the poor and the elderly - will continue to be the victims. The heat waves can’t be prevented. However, the deaths can, if certain precautions are taken.
Update: India, 2015
As of this writing (June 1st 2015), the situation in India is looking very grim. The death toll is nearing 2000 as temperature hover 15 to 20 Celsius above normal. According to the Brussels-based organization, Emergency-Event Database, this is currently the fifth-deadliest heat wave in recorded history.
Much of the country has been affected. This is particularly true for the nation’s poor who have been hit the hardest.
According to Voice of America News, many in the country are clinging to the hope that the monsoon season – which often begins about this time – will bring rain and cooler weather to the southern regions of the country.
However, Chandra Bhushan, deputy director of the New Delhi-based Center for Science and Environment best sums up the situation:
“Generally there is a slow ramp up of temperature ... but that did not happen. We had an unusually cold and wet March and April and then from the first week of May, the temperature suddenly started to increase and the ramp up was very, very fast," Bhushan explained. "What it means is in a very short period of time, the temperature increased by close to 15 to 20 degrees [Celsius]. (from VOA News, 2015)
The Six Deadliest Heat Waves
Official Death Toll*
Europe (in particular, France)
U.S. and Canada
Update 2019: The New Norm of Heat Waves
There's a new norm when it comes to summers. It's inevitable that monster heat waves are going to hit somewhere and shatter previous stats.
Just about every record listed in this article has been surpassed. In addition, heat waves are becoming more prevalent. And no where is safe.
Places such as Alaska and regions within the Arctic Circle have experienced 90 degree heat. These regions are not known for this. Even Europe as a whole has experienced back-to-back heat waves throughout the summer of 2019.
The results are catastrophic. Forest fires throughout Canada, Alaska, and Scandinavia have become the norm. Greenland lost billions of gallons of water from its ice pack within a few days during a time of unprecedented heat.
If trends continue, more records will fall while the heat turns up.
More on the Chicago Heat Wave
© 2015 Dean Traylor