HISTORY Lists

Heat Waves Throughout History

By Jennie Cohen
Summer 2013 has only just begun, but one region is already feeling the heat. This week, thanks to an unusual change in direction of the jet stream, much of Alaska is experiencing near-record breaking temperatures (30 degrees warmer than usual in some places), prompting authorities to issue warnings meant to protect citizens and prevent the outbreak of wildfires. As North America prepares for a long, hot summer, find out what happens when things start to really heat up with this look back at some of the most infamous heat waves in history.

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London’s Great Stink of 1858
This summer heat wave has lived in infamy not only for its soaring temperatures but also for the malodorous stench it unleashed on England’s capital. Many Londoners had recently traded in their chamber pots for water closets, which flushed an unprecedented amount of water and waste into the city’s 200,000 cesspits. As sewage overflowed into the River Thames and its tributaries, the warm weather encouraged the growth of bacteria with an odor so noxious that sheets soaked in chloride of lime were hung from the windows of the newly built House of Commons in an effort to blunt the smell. London’s poor still drank from the Thames, and thousands died that summer from cholera, typhoid and other diseases; these epidemics had yet to be linked to contaminated water and were instead blamed on the reeking air. One newspaper declared that “whoso once inhales the stink can never forget it and can count himself lucky if he lives to remember it.”

Amid public outcry, Parliament resolved to overhaul the city’s antiquated sewer system, enlisting the help of Joseph William Bazalgette, a brilliant and celebrated civil engineer. His sprawling network of drains and pumping stations, designed to handle 420 million gallons of liquid waste a day, officially opened in 1865 and became fully operational a decade later. Many credit Bazalgette with saving thousands of lives–and, of course, sparing countless noses from London’s intolerable stink.

The Great New York Heat Wave of 1896
At the end of the 19th century, New York City was home to some 3 million people, many occupying the notoriously cramped and stifling tenements of the Lower East Side and other low-income neighborhoods. When 10 days of relentless heat baked the Big Apple in August 1896, these abysmal living conditions went from an uncomfortable reality to a death sentence for an estimated 1,300 New Yorkers. Roasting in their jam-packed bedrooms and barred from sleeping in public parks by a citywide ban, many tenement dwellers sought a breath of fresh air on rooftops, fire escapes and piers. A sizable share of the heat wave casualties occurred when people fell asleep, rolled from their perches and plummeted to their deaths; others succumbed to heat stroke and other heat-related ailments. More than 1,000 horses also died during the crisis.

Even as the death toll mounted, the city government did little to address the disaster, and the heat wave was on the verge of waning by the time the mayor called an emergency meeting. One relatively obscure official emerged as a hero: Theodore Roosevelt, the city’s police commissioner, who had angered New Yorkers earlier in the summer by cracking down on taverns that stayed open beyond the legal closing time. The future president instructed the police force to distribute free ice in tenement neighborhoods and provide ambulance services to the sick. According to some historians, the heat wave salvaged Roosevelt’s faltering political career and ultimately helped propel him to the White House.

The North American Heat Wave of 1936
In the United States, the timing of the 1936 North American heat wave could not have been worse. Battered by the Great Depression, bled dry by years of drought and blinded by perpetual dust storms, the country took yet another debilitating hit when temperatures soared to all-time highs in 12 states, clearing the 120-degree mark in some regions. (The Canadian provinces of Ontario and Manitoba also saw record heat that summer.) Like the blistering summer of 2010, the 1936 heat wave started early and followed an unusually cold winter, leaving Americans unprepared for such a drastic change in weather.

Reports of dramatic and horrific scenes poured in from around the country. The Midwest had been battling a grasshopper infestation for several years, and as temperatures climbed their broiled, lifeless bodies began dropping from the sky like antennaed hail. In New York City, which hit a record high of 106 degrees, 75 seamstresses at a single factory fell into a collective, heat-induced swoon. In Detroit, one of the steamiest cities, doctors and nurses collapsed while treating patients, overcome by heat and exhaustion, and the morgues were overrun with bodies. By summer’s end, upward of 5,000 Americans and 1,100 Canadians had died from heat-related causes or drowned while trying to cool off in rivers and lakes.

The Chicago Heat Wave of 1995
Like much of the central and eastern United States, Chicago had suffered through the devastating heat waves of 1980 and 1988, which persisted for weeks and caused tens of thousands of fatalities nationwide. But in the summer of 1995, the Windy City lost approximately 700 residents in just five humid and sweltering days–a staggering mortality rate that exposed the city’s inadequate response system while debunking common assumptions about which groups are most susceptible to heat-related death.

On July 13, the temperature in the city hit 106 degrees and the heat index, which takes humidity into account to gauge how hot it actually feels, surpassed 120 degrees. As the heat lingered, much of Chicago’s urban infrastructure began to break down: excessive air conditioner use maxed out the power grid; relief seekers opened so many hydrants that several communities lost water pressure; and train rails and roads buckled, causing massive commuter delays. Paramedics, hospitals and morgues were quickly overwhelmed, and midway through the heat wave there was a backlog of hundreds of bodies. In the aftermath of the tragedy, researchers found that most of those who died were older men who lived alone, despite the fact that senior women outnumbered senior men in the area; they concluded that women’s stronger social connections to the community had acted as a defense. Four years later, when another heat wave hit the city, better preparation and a more rapid response limited the deaths to just over 100.

The European Heat Wave of 2003
In July and August of 2003, countries across Europe sizzled through what some scientists deemed their hottest summer since 1500 A.D. The scorching temperatures peaked in the last two weeks of August and claimed at least 40,000 victims, taking a heavy toll on the very young, the chronically ill and elderly people living alone or in nursing homes. Forest fires raged in Portugal, Spain and Italy, while melting glaciers triggered flash floods in the Alps and crops withered throughout southern Europe.

France was hit hardest by the crisis, suffering an estimated 14,000 fatalities as temperatures soared to 104 degrees in a country with an aging population and limited air conditioning. In France and elsewhere, the appallingly high death toll revealed a lack of preparedness for extreme weather in regions with historically temperate climates. Reports cited treatment delays, unawareness of heat-related conditions like dehydration and inadequate medical personnel. In the years since 2003, most European governments have developed action plans for extreme heat that emphasize green spaces, public education, warning systems and emergency measures for the most vulnerable.

Categories: Weather