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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 06/21/2010

The heat waves of the 1930s

By Kevin Ambrose

* Hot week just getting started: Full Forecast | NatCast *

A Washington, D.C. heat wave cartoon from July 28, 1930. The heat wave is pictured trying to break a "sitting record," imitating the popular flagpole sitters of the day. The summer of 1930 set the record in Washington for number of days that temperatures reached or exceeded 100°F, at 11 days. The hottest temperature of 106°F occurred on July 20. Pulitzer Prize winner Clifford Berryman drew the cartoon. Source: The book "Washington Weather."

Before there was global warming, there were the dust bowl years of the 1930s, also known as "The Dirty Thirties." The record-setting heat waves and drought of the 1930s occurred during the middle of the Great Depression and contributed to the economic hardship felt throughout the nation. They also occurred when most people did not have the comfort of air conditioning and many heat-related deaths were reported. Two years during that decade were particularly hot for our region, 1930 and 1936. Those two years set heat records in Washington which still stand today.

Keep reading to learn more about the heat waves of 1930 and 1936.

The summer of 1930 made headlines due to unprecedented heat and drought that caused disastrous crop failures throughout the United States. The summer of 1930 ushered in the "Dust Bowl" era of unusually hot, dry summers that plagued the U.S. during much of the 1930s.

Washington area farmers were certainly not spared in 1930, as intense, prolonged hot spells gripped the region during late July and early August. The official temperature recorded on July 20 was 106°F, which holds the record as the highest temperature ever recorded in Washington. Unofficially, 110°F was recorded that same day on Pennsylvania Avenue and 108°F at the National Cathedral. The summer of 1930 also set the record for number of days where temperatures reached or exceeded 100°F at 11 days.

High temperatures of over 100°F were recorded during two heat waves that occurred in late July and early August of 1930. The July heat wave high temperatures are as follows:

July 19 - 102°F
July 20 - 106°F
July 21 - 103°F
July 22 - 100°F
July 23 - 94°F
July 24 - 93°F
July 25 - 100°F
July 26 - 100°F

The August heat wave high temperatures are as follows:

August 2 - 94°F
August 3 - 100°F
August 4 - 102°F
August 5 - 102°F
August 6 - 88°F
August 7 - 97°F
August 8 - 104°F
August 9 - 102°F

By the end of the summer of 1930, approximately 30 deaths in Washington were blamed on the heat and thousands more had died nationwide. In Washington, there has never been another summer with a heat wave that has equaled the summer of 1930.

The Heat Chaser hostess gives a Washington policeman a cold drink, August 4, 1936. Temperatures reached 95°F that day. The hottest day of that summer was July 10 when the temperature reached 105°F.Source: The book "Washington Weather."

The summer of 1936 stands out as one of the hottest summers felt across the entire United States. The heat wave began in early summer, with the Midwest experiencing June temperatures exceeding 100°F in some locations. The heat peaked in July, with all-time records set in many cities. Steele, North Dakota recorded a high temperature of 121°F and portions of Canada saw high temperatures exceed 110°F. In Washington, the temperature reached 104°F on July 9 and 105°F on July 10. More than 5,000 heat-related deaths were reported across the United States. The heat wave and drought of 1936 finally eased in September.

For you snow-lovers, how do you think the winters that followed the heat waves of 1930 and 1936 fared for Washingtonians? I can sum it up in one word, depressing. Of course, if you like tennis weather or afternoon strolls without an overcoat, the winters of 1930/31 and 1936/37 were awesome.

During the winter that followed the 1930 heat wave, there were only 3 days which had temperatures below freezing all day and only 2.5" of snow fell during the entire winter season. Temperatures in the 40's and 50's were common during the winter months, with 67°F recorded on January 27.

The winter that followed the heat wave of 1936 was even milder than 1930 for Washington. During that winter, there was only 1 day which had temperatures below freezing all day and temperatures in the 60's were common throughout the winter months. An amazing high temperature of 76°F was recorded on January 9. A few late season wet snowstorms salvaged the winter for snow in Washington, with a little over 15" reported for the season.

By Kevin Ambrose  | June 21, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Photography  
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Posted by: sigmagrrl | June 21, 2010 12:16 PM | Report abuse

Another piece of evidence, quite a few all-time highs were in the 1930's and many were set in 1936:

Posted by: eric654 | June 21, 2010 1:07 PM | Report abuse

Fascinating, I love weather history. Thanks for posting this!

Posted by: NYC123 | June 21, 2010 1:55 PM | Report abuse

I am SO glad I have air conditioning. I cannot even imagine a streak of those temperatures with D.C.'s typical humidity and NO air conditioning. What did people do?

Posted by: Ann-CapitalWeatherGang | June 21, 2010 1:58 PM | Report abuse

I'd be interested in seeing some comparisons as to highest overall summer avg temps as opposed to number of individual days with records. I was under the impression that the summer of 1980 was one of the hottest on record based on average temperature

Posted by: hohandy | June 21, 2010 2:00 PM | Report abuse

Ann, shade makes a huge difference. Many of today's new subdivisions are built on bare ground with only ornamental trees. Almost half of my passive solar house book is about keeping a house cool in summer.

Posted by: eric654 | June 21, 2010 2:20 PM | Report abuse

Back in the day houses were built to get the best exposure & best breeze possible. There weren't McNeighborhoods with houses squeezed in every which way, communities were planned to help with the weather issues.

Posted by: wadejg | June 21, 2010 2:24 PM | Report abuse

How hot was it 1994? That summer the US hosted the World Cup and many of the games were played in very hot conditions - partly so they'd be in prime time for European TV audiences.

That summer may have not been terribly hot overall but late June was very hot. And it followed a harsh winter which had some of the coldest temps and ice storms - if I recall correctly.

Posted by: Joel_M_Lane | June 21, 2010 4:40 PM | Report abuse

What a wonderful cartoon - helps take edge off the heat today.

Posted by: psilosome | June 21, 2010 5:09 PM | Report abuse

So...what do the 1930s mean with regard to global warming/AGW? I thought only man could make hot temperatures:)

Posted by: silencedogoodreturns | June 21, 2010 5:49 PM | Report abuse

Regarding the questions about comparisons with 1980 and 1994, I averaged the high temperatures between June 1 and August 31 of the following years:

1930 - 88.5 °F
1936 - 85.93 °F
1980 - 89.27 °F
1994 - 88.14 °F

The summer of 1980 wins the average of hottest daytime temperatures.

Posted by: Kevin-CapitalWeatherGang | June 21, 2010 5:58 PM | Report abuse

Back home in Wisconsin, the years 1934 and 1936 stand out as extremely hot. The 1934 heat wave happened in May and June, with temperatures as high as 107 in May! 1934 was also the driest year in Wisconsin Dust Bowl history. The 1936 record in Eau Claire is 111 degrees and the state heat record is 114 degrees, in Wisconsin Dells.

Ironically the winter of 1936 was one of Wisconsin's coldest with -35 degrees in Eau Claire, during February. The coldest winter ever recorded in Wisconsin was probably 1950-51.

Posted by: Bombo47jea | June 21, 2010 7:39 PM | Report abuse

How does the summer of 1988, around here, compare to the other hot summers? 1988 was just astounding, here in the D.C. area. We had weeks and months of 90-degree-plus, and Dulles was 104 degrees on at least one occasion.

Posted by: MMCarhelp | June 22, 2010 12:11 AM | Report abuse

Can we also check 1934? thanks.

Posted by: eric654 | June 22, 2010 7:04 AM | Report abuse

For the average high temperatures from June 1 to August 31, the year 1934 was 86.5°F and 1988 was 89.1°F.

Posted by: Kevin-CapitalWeatherGang | June 22, 2010 7:47 AM | Report abuse

In the summer of 1980, I was living in Providence with no air conditioning (my mom's house still doesn't have it). My housemates and I were trying to make whipped cream, but it was so hot that three successive batches of cream turned straight from liquid to butter. Sweat ran down us when we just stood still. That was one steamy summer.

Posted by: stephanie20 | June 22, 2010 3:21 PM | Report abuse

You mention the winters after 1930 and 1936. With the winter that we just had, I'm curious what the winters before the 1930 and 1936 heat waves were like.

Posted by: jb41477 | June 23, 2010 2:09 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

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