The Great Heat Wave of 1936; Hottest Summer in U.S. on Record

By: Christopher C. Burt , 10:10 PM GMT on July 21, 2011

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The Great Heat Wave of 1936; Hottest Summer in U.S. on Record

As the eastern two-thirds of the United States continues to swelter under some of the hottest temperatures seen in recent years I thought it opportune to look back at the nation’s worst heat wave and hottest summer in history, that of 1936.

1936; A Year of Extremes

The climatological summer (June-August) of 1936 was the warmest nationwide on record (since 1895) with an average temperature of 74.6° (2nd warmest summer was that of 2006 with an average of 74.4°) and July of 1936 was the single warmest month ever measured with an average of 77.4° (beating out July 2006 by .1°). Ironically, February of 1936 was the coldest such on record with an average nationwide temperature of 26.0° (single coldest month on record was January 1977 with a 23.6° average). In February of 1936 temperatures fell as low as -60° in North Dakota, an all-time state record and Turtle Lake, North Dakota averaged -19.4° for the entire month, the coldest average monthly temperature ever recorded in the United States outside of Alaska. One town in North Dakota, Langdon, went for 41 consecutive days below zero (from January 11 to February 20), the longest stretch of below zero (including maximum temperatures) ever endured at any site in the lower 48.

With this in mind, it is truly astonishing what occurred the following summer. The temperature in North Dakota that had reached -60° on February 15 at Parshall rose to 121° at Steele by July 6, 1936. The two towns are just 110 miles from one another!

The Great Heat Wave

JUNE 1936

June of 1936 saw unusual heat build initially in two nodes, one centered over the Southeast and another over the Rocky Mountains and western Plains. This differs from the current heat wave that began mostly over Texas and the Deep South.



By the end of June 1936 all-time state monthly records for heat had been established in Arkansas (113° at Corning on June 20th), Indiana (111° at Seymore on June 29th), Kentucky (110° at St. John on June 29th), Louisiana (110° at Dodson on June 20th), Mississippi (111° at Greenwood on June 20th), Missouri (112° at Doniphan on June 20th), Nebraska (114° at Franklin on June 26th), and Tennessee (110° at Etowah on June 29th). A total of 8 states and all these monthly records are still standing.

JULY 1936

By July the dome of heat locked in place over the central and northern Great Plains and remained there for the entire month.



Around July 8-10 the ridge briefly extended all the way to the East Coast when virtually every absolute maximum temperature record was broken from Virginia to New York. This held true for most sites in the Ohio Valley, Upper Midwest, and Great Plains as well. There are so many superlatives that it is impossible to list them all. In short the following states broke or tied their all-time maximum temperatures that July:



Add to the above list a 120° reading at Gann Valley, South Dakota on July 5th. Unfortunately I am unable to update the table with this record since it would involve rewriting and posting the table (not an easy task!). Sorry for the omission!

Some of the many major cities to record their all-time maximum temperatures during July 1936 included:



On July 15th the average high temperature for all 113 weather stations in Iowa measured 108.7°. Similar to the current heat wave the nighttime low temperatures were also remarkably warm. Bismarck recorded a low of just 83° on July 11th. Milwaukee, Wisconsin endured five consecutive nights above 80° from July 8-13. Even near the normally cool shores of Lake Erie amazing temperatures were recorded such as the low of 85° and high of 110° at Corry, Pennsylvania on July 14th. And most amazing of all was the low of 91° at Lincoln, Nebraska on the night of July 24-25th warming to an all-time record of 115° on the 25th.



Residents of Lincoln, Nebraska spend the night on the lawn of the state capital on July 25, 1936. The temperature that night never fell below 91°, perhaps the warmest night ever recorded anywhere in the United States outside of the desert Southwest. Photo from the Nebraska State Historical Society.

AUGUST 1936

By August the heat dome shifted a bit further south from its position over the northern Plains and became anchored over the southern Plains.



More all-time state records were broken or tied:



Oklahoma City also broke its all-time heat record with a high of 113° on August 11th as did Kansas City also with 113° on August 14th and Wichita with 114° on the 12th. The list just goes on and on.

All in all, nothing like this heat wave has before or since occurred. It is hard to believe how people fared without air-conditioning, although there were some rudimentary forms of such:



When the temperature peaked at an all-time high of 108° in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the want-ad staff at the 'St. Paul Daily News' was provided with 400 pounds of ice and two electric fans to cool the air in the press room. Photo from the Minnesota Historical Society.

The only saving grace was that, unlike the current heat wave, humidities were low as a result of the ongoing and prolonged drought which had been affecting almost all of the central part of the country for several years come the summer of 1936. This is also probably one of the reasons that such anomalous extreme high temperatures were recorded.

Seventeen states broke or equaled their all-time record absolute maximum temperatures during the summer of 1936 (still standing records).

Below is a map reproduced from my book Extreme Weather: A Guide and Record Book that summarizes some of the records broken during the summer of 1936:



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11. klwc
1:03 PM GMT on August 11, 2012
Thank you for this great post. Really fascinating!

Being in the St Louis area, we have broken numerous records this summer including high minimum temps for overnight.

I think it would be quite interesting to expand your historical comparatives to include some data on heat-related human deaths and livestock/crop losses. Cause-effect structure.

Thanks again for this most interesting post.

Member Since: August 11, 2012 Posts: 0 Comments: 0
10. Some1Has2BtheRookie
12:13 AM GMT on August 11, 2012
Chuckm51 - post #4

"When meteorologists use terms like "ironically" and "probably" when explaining to lay people like myself why the climate is as it is, I cannot help but feel skeptical of their very long-range climate forecasts."

I would like to make one point and then ask you two questions. The point I would like to make is that the discussion of the 1936 drought is a discussion of a weather event and not about the climate.

Christopher was not making any forecasts, as he already pointed out. Here are my two questions for you -

1. Who would trust for any long-range climate forecasts?

2. Would you trust anyone making a long-range climate forecast simply because they avoided using the words "ironically" and "probably" in their forecasts?

OK, three questions.

3. Would you trust any forecast that did not include some degree of probability in it? (Without some degree of probability attached, it is being stated as a definite, is it not?)
Member Since: August 24, 2010 Posts: 0 Comments: 4737
9. pcola57
7:58 PM GMT on August 10, 2012
Thanks Mr.Christopher C. Burt,
Great blog and with astounding numbers!!
I'm afraid that 2012 will approach if not exceed some of those all-time highs..
Keep up the good work... :)
Member Since: August 13, 2009 Posts: 13 Comments: 6821
8. Christopher C. Burt , Weather Historian
7:28 PM GMT on July 24, 2011
Quoting Snowfire:
Since humidities affect morning lows in particular, I wonder how the current heat wave stacks up to '36 if one examines this figure, rather than afternoon highs. The 91 in Lincoln is still unmatched, but what about everywhere else?


There were not nearly as many all-time record warmest month records during the summer of 1936 as absolute maximum record highs so one might surmise that the lows were not as impressive as the highs recorded. However, many sites did record astonishing maximum low temperatures during the peak of the heat wave (like Lincoln, Bismarck, Milwaukee, etc..). It would take a lengthy analysis to make a comparison with the current heat wave, but we are seeing a large number of all-time max minimums recently!
Member Since: February 15, 2006 Posts: 301 Comments: 281
7. Snowfire
12:11 PM GMT on July 24, 2011
Since humidities affect morning lows in particular, I wonder how the current heat wave stacks up to '36 if one examines this figure, rather than afternoon highs. The 91 in Lincoln is still unmatched, but what about everywhere else?
Member Since: June 29, 2005 Posts: 24 Comments: 309
6. Christopher C. Burt , Weather Historian
4:45 AM GMT on July 24, 2011
Quoting chuckm51:
"The climatological summer (June-August) of 1936 was the warmest nationwide on record (since 1895) with an average temperature of 74.6. ... Ironically, February of 1936 was the coldest such on record with an average nationwide temperature of 26.0....".

"The only saving grace was that, unlike the current heat wave, humidities were low as a result of the ongoing and prolonged drought which had been affecting almost all of the central part of the country for several years come the summer of 1936. This is also probably one of the reasons that such anomalous extreme high temperatures were recorded."

When meteorologists use terms like "ironically" and "probably" when explaining to lay people like myself why the climate is as it is, I cannot help but feel skeptical of their very long-range climate forecasts. And I cannot avoid being reminded of the parable of the three blind men who encounter an elephant for the first time, who each touch a different part of elephant and announce wildly different descriptions of what the elephant looks like.( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blind_men_and_an_elep hant )

Climatologists, in the main, seem clueless of the greater climatic, oceanographic, solar, and seismologic dynamics that surely all have a role in our climate at any particular moment now and into the future. As I understand it, the sun has been acting unusual for the last decade or more, with well-below normal solar activity. Likewise, seismic activity has apparently been above normal for some time...the ring of fire around the Pacific specifically.

We're told locally that our hot and dry summer is the result of La Nina - unusually cool Pacific currents that keep the jet stream too far to the north. Yet this article makes no mention of La Nina. And of course, the fact that water vapor is by far the most common and also most insideous "greenhouse gas" never seems to enter climate discussions. And, "ironically", we too had extremely cold weather last winter in parts of the south. The blog that directed me to this article, Dr jeff Master's ( http://www.wunderground.com/blog/JeffMasters/comme nt.html?entrynum=1853#commenttop )pins the blame fot the heat and humidity on unusually warm Atlantic temps, but I recall we were told global warming would cause a cooling of the atlantic resulting in terrible cold weather in northern europe.

I've also read that "global average temperature" (whatever that means)has been falling for the last 10 years, after a period of modest increase.

I am always suspicious of people with agendas who undertake to tell me what is true or not, for as we all know... figures don't lie, but liars figure.

Hi Chuck,

Thanks for correcting my improper use of the word 'ironic'. I should have more properly said something like 'amazing coincidence' or such, so far as the amazing North Dakota extremes in 1936. Since I made no supposition as to just why this happened (and certainly am not making any long term forecasts based on such) then I don't think I should be castigated for blaming climate change for such. This seems to be your assumption.

Also, I used the word 'probably' as to why the temperatures in the summer of 1936 in the Plains reached such phenomenal heights. Since, unfortunately we have no upper air data to look at there is no certain scientific expnantion as to why these extreme values were attained. Hence, I would not say with scientific certainty the extreme temperatures were the result of anything we know about for sure. However, scientists do know that low humidities usually result in higher temperatures. That, however, hasn't been the case this summer!


Member Since: February 15, 2006 Posts: 301 Comments: 281
5. robsobs
3:17 AM GMT on July 24, 2011
The heat wave of July 1936 ranks as one my favourite extreme weather events. The intensity and duration of the heat is simply unparalleled in the US and Canada. Note all time high temperatures records of 42.2C (108F) in Winnipeg, MB on July 11 1936 and 40.6C (105F) in Toronto ON on 3 straight days from July 8-10th. 13 straights days over 31C (88F) in Winnipeg between July 5-17th with 10 daily record highs that still stand to this day! All time provincial highs of 44.4C (112F) in Manitoba and 42.2C (108F) in Ontario have yet to be matched. I don't know if we'll ever see a repeat of such an extraordinary heat wave as 1936.
Member Since: December 20, 2010 Posts: 0 Comments: 12
4. chuckm51
1:25 PM GMT on July 23, 2011
"The climatological summer (June-August) of 1936 was the warmest nationwide on record (since 1895) with an average temperature of 74.6°. ... Ironically, February of 1936 was the coldest such on record with an average nationwide temperature of 26.0°....".

"The only saving grace was that, unlike the current heat wave, humidities were low as a result of the ongoing and prolonged drought which had been affecting almost all of the central part of the country for several years come the summer of 1936. This is also probably one of the reasons that such anomalous extreme high temperatures were recorded."

When meteorologists use terms like "ironically" and "probably" when explaining to lay people like myself why the climate is as it is, I cannot help but feel skeptical of their very long-range climate forecasts. And I cannot avoid being reminded of the parable of the three blind men who encounter an elephant for the first time, who each touch a different part of elephant and announce wildly different descriptions of what the elephant looks like.( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blind_men_and_an_elep hant )

Climatologists, in the main, seem clueless of the greater climatic, oceanographic, solar, and seismologic dynamics that surely all have a role in our climate at any particular moment now and into the future. As I understand it, the sun has been acting unusual for the last decade or more, with well-below normal solar activity. Likewise, seismic activity has apparently been above normal for some time...the ring of fire around the Pacific specifically.

We're told locally that our hot and dry summer is the result of La Nina - unusually cool Pacific currents that keep the jet stream too far to the north. Yet this article makes no mention of La Nina. And of course, the fact that water vapor is by far the most common and also most insideous "greenhouse gas" never seems to enter climate discussions. And, "ironically", we too had extremely cold weather last winter in parts of the south. The blog that directed me to this article, Dr jeff Master's ( http://www.wunderground.com/blog/JeffMasters/comme nt.html?entrynum=1853#commenttop )pins the blame fot the heat and humidity on unusually warm Atlantic temps, but I recall we were told global warming would cause a cooling of the atlantic resulting in terrible cold weather in northern europe.

I've also read that "global average temperature" (whatever that means)has been falling for the last 10 years, after a period of modest increase.

I am always suspicious of people with agendas who undertake to tell me what is true or not, for as we all know... figures don't lie, but liars figure.




Member Since: June 27, 2008 Posts: 0 Comments: 0
3. mobal
12:28 PM GMT on July 22, 2011
Thanks for the great blog. Very informative.
Member Since: August 3, 2005 Posts: 482 Comments: 5332
2. rod2635
9:14 AM GMT on July 22, 2011
The 91 degree minimum in Lincoln is truly an astonishing feat. The 181 degree spread, winter to summer for ND...has any state exceeded that in a single year...Nevada might have a shot. Thanks for the excellent stats. All that misery occurring in the depths of the Great Depression.
Member Since: January 27, 2011 Posts: 0 Comments: 318
1. cyclonebuster
10:50 PM GMT on July 21, 2011
Was North Arctic ice extent as bad as it is now back then? If not then could this one be worse?
Member Since: January 2, 2006 Posts: 127 Comments: 20401

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About weatherhistorian

Christopher C. Burt is the author of 'Extreme Weather; A Guide and Record Book'. He studied meteorology at the Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison.