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.