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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

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.


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:


The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.