The summer of 1980

Hot times.

Where were you in the summer of 1980?  I was in Oklahoma City, working as a summer intern for one of the state agencies.  The summer of 1980 was the most persistently hot summer Oklahoma has seen since records have been kept; the summer of 2011 will have to go a considerable way to catch up with (much less surpass) it.

I mention this because on The Weather Channel this morning, a TWC reporter interviewed an Oklahoma City official who said the area has now seen the most days ever in which excessive heat advisories have been issued.  I have no doubt that the heat wave is miserable and seems never-ending to those in Oklahoma this summer (like the members of my family), but the city official’s statement doesn’t mean 2011 is the most persistently hot summer ever.  It means they weren’t issuing excessive heat advisories in 1980.

Here is a summary of the 1980 heat wave from the NewsOK Oklahoma Weather Blog:

Record-high temperatures for Oklahoma’s capital were tied or broken 18 times during 1980, and the third-highest temperature ever recorded for Oklahoma City was set on August 2 with a reading of 110 degrees (113 remains Oklahoma City’s highest recorded temperature, from July 11, 1936). High temperatures of greater than 90 degrees occurred on 71 consecutive days, from June 23 until September 1 (it should be noted that after this one day respite, temperatures elevated above 90 degrees once again for 14 consecutive days).

As the weather blogger says, “The defining characteristic of the summer of 1980 was the relentlessness of the heat.”  Seventy-one straight days over 90 – nearly half of them 100 or more – took a tremendous toll on livestock, crops, and human lives.

July 1980 was also the driest July of the century for Oklahoma – less rainfall even than during the Dust Bowl – with a statewide average precipitation of less than half an inch.  I can personally attest that not one single drop of it fell in Oklahoma City.  The period of most intense heat coincided with 41 straight days in which most of the state saw no rainfall at all.  The level of Lake Hefner, in northwest Oklahoma City, was the lowest most people had ever seen it; news crews visited it almost every day to mourn the shrinkage.

And, of course, if you didn’t have air conditioning in car or home – and a lot of people didn’t; my car had no A/C – you spent much of the summer soaked in sweat.  The nighttime lows hovered between 85 and 90.  One of the main things I remember is working all day in a skirt and pantyhose, which was standard attire in 1980.  There was nothing like leaving the state office building between 4:30 and 5:00 PM each afternoon and getting into a big metal car that had been baking in the sun and 100+-degree heat since 7:30 that morning.  I carried a washcloth in my purse to grip the door handle with, and laid two beach towels on the seat and seat-back as a buffer against the burning heat.

The heat wave of 1980 was felt across North America.  As many as 1700 lives are estimated to have been lost due to the excessive heat, along with over $50 billion in economic losses (in 2007 dollars).   But the worst heat wave in North America in the past century actually occurred in 1936.  Another intense, prolonged heat wave hit the central continent in the summer of 1954.  According to the American Meteorological Society, in an article about the 1980 heat wave published in 1981:

Much more hostile conditions have existed in the past, particularly during the 1930’s and the 1950’s.

It’s worth remembering that 1980 was worse than 2011 (although that may change), and the 1950s and 1930s were worse than 1980.

It’s also worth remembering that the heat waves occurred in conjunction with some of the coldest winters the continent has seen, along with a high incidence of tornadoes and intense hurricanes.  Many of the 20th century’s North American records were set in 1935 and 1936; rain and snowfall records that still stand were set in the northwest, temperatures in Fargo were below zero for 37 straight days, 107 people died across the country in river flooding in the spring.  1953-54 saw only slightly less precipitation and cold, although some areas of the northwest set rainfall records that still stand.  The two-year period spawned tornadoes even more intense than the record-shattering years of the 1930s.

And many Americans in middle age or older today remember the hard winters of 1978 and 1979, still the coldest on record for much of North America.  It was in the wake of these winters – which also hit Europe and parts of Asia hard – that ice-age prophets (if not certified climatologists) roamed the globe forecasting a catastrophic cooling of the earth.  (Notably, Europe was hard hit by wild weather in 1953 and 1954 as well, with unusual events including a disastrous flood of England, Scotland, and the Low Countries by the North Sea in 1953, and a tornado strike on London in 1954.)

None of these facts mean that the people suffering tornadoes and intense heat this year, or those being driven from their homes by floods and wildfires in the northern plains and the West, are enduring less than their predecessors in wild-weather-dom.  What they mean is that weather has been wild before.  Many of us who are no more than middle aged can remember it being worse in our lifetimes.  Our parents, and theirs, have similar memories; written records from decades or centuries ago confirm the same thing. 

Collated data and human anecdotal experience deliver the same message about weather:  it comes in cycles.  What you’re seeing on any given day is virtually guaranteed not to be the “worst” or “most” it’s ever been – “ever” includes at a minimum some 80,000 to 100,000 years’ worth of climate conditions suitable for human life, of which we have directly measured no more than about 150.  In fact, whatever you’re seeing today is probably not even the worst or most in the last 40 years.  Anecdote, transient impressions, and ignorance of the recent past should not be invoked to convince us that a given theory (like anthropogenic global warming/climate change) is invalid – but neither should they be convince us that it is valid.

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at Hot Air’s Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, and The Weekly Standard online.

11 thoughts on “The summer of 1980”

  1. This is all because Obama has a defeatist attitude toward the weather and if Ronald Reagan were president it would be way cooler.

    1. Ahhh fuster, it looks like the enviros have gotten to you! If I’m reading your comment correctly, you joke that if Reagan rather than Obama was Prez, the weather would be cooler (cooler presumably being better than warmer – as the “global warming” scientists have told us). But who’s to say that warmer weather isn’t *better* than what we have now? I’ve noticed that Al Gore & Co have never said that the earth is X temperature and it needs to be Y temperature. Awfully convenient that.

    2. fuster knew that I would have to agree with him again: It would be way cooler if Reagan were President.

    3. Now, fuster, that’s just silly. Obama can’t affect the weather.

      1. whaaa? you don’t believe all the evidence that Obama has a covert program working on Weapons of Meteorological Disruption?

  2. So, that’s why our host relocated to SoCal!

    I trust the temperature data you cite have not been “adjusted” or “value added” by the University of East Anglia with the original data then discarded. Many urban temperature stations have seen major changes in nature of the surrounding land. What is the size of Oklahoma City compared with its size in 1936? Are there vast expanses of steel, concrete and asphalt where pasturelands once lay? Which would be more efficient at holding the heat from the sun?

    1. I think most Okies would consider East Anglia to be some kind of fishing expedition you go on down by Idabell (a town in the Louisiana-like southeast of the state).

      The land area of OKC hasn’t changed much since 1936; it’s still vast, although I believe it has been knocked out of second place in the USA by Suffolk, Virginia. (Jacksonville, FL is #1.) But, of course, much more of it is built up now. The downtown hasn’t expanded all that much, but the square miles of city streets and city roofs have mushroomed exponentially.

        1. No, I don’t. My mother lives there, and my brothers’ families live in Edmond and Norman, respectively.

          I haven’t been keeping up with the record-setting since I wrote this piece (3 weeks ago now), but the summer has continued to be awful. A number of places in Oklahoma may have set more records. My poor mom has had to have the freon in the A/C unit refilled twice.

  3. J.E., you bring back all the fond weather memories. I moved from Atlanta to OKC in 1978 . I turned on the TV at my hotel just in time to watch Billy Sims fumble for the last time to help lose to Nebraska. We did rectify that in the Orange Bowl.
    The heat started in early June which is a month early.
    ON THE OTHER HAND: Business is surprisingly good in Oklahoma. Gas wells (deep) are exploding all over The Anadarko Basin. Home sales are so-so, but Home Improvement (in-door and outdoor is very strong). Devon energy is erecting a very tall office building downtown.
    Oklahoma and Texas seem to be rolling along. Except for the Longhorns of course. They still don’t have a quarterback.
    By the way, people from California have been moving here for many years. I have customers from the Bay area, LA, San Diego etc. etc.
    If the President lived here, he would be holding a cardbord sign at NW Expressway and Hefner Parkway. Something about raising taxes, stop drilling, stop building, you have made enough money, slow down, worry, we need more street organizers, hey what do you guys think we should do, let’s form a committee, wait for me guys.

    Real Ball (wonderful phrase) is closer

  4. wreed — LOL — I thought your image of Obama standing at NW Highway and Hefner Parkway was going to have him holding a sign that said “Will work for food.”

    Funny thing about the Anadarko Basin. I remember well the dilemma the Hefners had in the 1970s and early ’80s because we didn’t have the technology to drill Anadarko. One of the endless string of Robert Hefners was leading a lonely charge to develop drilling equipment of sufficient strength and agility for the purpose, and a lot of people said he was crazy. They said it would never be either technologically possible or economical to drill that deep.

    But here we are. Anadarko barely even seems deep any more. Betting against fossil fuels is kind of like betting that the Sooners or Longhorns won’t recover from a funk. I’m not in any hurry to see the Horns acquire a QB, of course, but we all know they’ll be back. Notre Dame, on the other hand…

    Yep, Real Ball is edging closer. Californians are fleeing to Oklahoma and Texas (and Arizona and Nevada). Life goes on… Billy Sims… good grief, blast from the past…

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