North American Heat Wave of 1936

The "Dust Bowl" years of 1930-36 brought some of the hottest summers on record to the United States, especially across the Plains, Upper Midwest and Great Lake States.

For the Upper Mississippi River Valley, the first few weeks of July 1936 provided the hottest temperatures of that period, including many all-time record highs.

The string of hot, dry days was also deadly. Nationally, around 5000 deaths were associated with the heat wave.

In La Crosse, WI, there were 14 consecutive days (July 5th-18th) where the high temperature was 90 degrees or greater, and 9 days that were at or above 100. Six record July temperatures set during this time still stand, including the hottest day on record with 108 on the 14th. The average high temperature for La Crosse during this stretch of extreme heat was 101.

The heat wave started in late June, when temperatures across the US exceeded 100 °F (38 °C). The Midwest experienced some of the highest June temperatures on record. Drought conditions worsened. In the Northeast, temperatures climbed to the mid 90s °F (around 35 °C). The South and West started to heat up also, and also experienced drought. The heat wave began to extend into Canada. Moderate to extreme drought covered the entire continent. The dry and exposed soil contributed directly to the heat as happens normally in desert areas as the extreme heat entered the air by radiation and direct contact. Reports at the time and explored in the definitive works on the Dust Bowl told of soil temperatures reaching in excess of 200 °F (93 °C) at the four inch/10 cm level in regions of the Dust Bowl—such soil temperatures were sufficient to sterilise the soil by killing nitrogen-fixing bacteria and other microbes, delivering the final blow in the declining fertility of that soil which had not already blown away.

There were 10 in all on the first day. No one could have known that it was only the beginning of one of the greatest and deadliest disasters in the history of Detroit.

Sixty years ago, the most terrible heat wave ever recorded fell upon the city. At its end, one week later, hundreds were dead and daily lists started on the front page and filled an entire column inside the paper.

Healthy men and women would start off for work in the morning and never come home, falling in the streets or at work when they were overcome by the sun and heat. Weeping relatives besieged Receiving Hospital and the morgue, where the dead were lined up in corridors since no space remained on the slabs. Doctors and nurses collapsed at their stations, overcome by heat and fatigue. "It's as if Detroit has been attacked by a plague out of the Middle Ages," one observer wrote.

Seventy years ago this month, the greatest heat wave since records have been kept in the U.S. and Canada occurred. At its peak, 100 degree plus heat covered the Great Plains, Midwest, South, and much of theNortheast, as well as the provinces of Manitoba and Ontario, Canada. At times the heat even spread into the Pacific Northwest and western Canada. With air conditioning in its infancy, it was only available in some movie theaters, large department stores and other public places, and not in homes at all. Many people were forced to sleep in their yards or in parks when their homes became stifling. The death toll ranks this as one of the deadliest weather disasters on record in the U.S. and in Canada. About 5,000 people are estimated to have died from the effects of the heat in the U.S. during 1936, most of them during this event. The heat was especially deadly in large Midwestern cities such as St. Louis, Minneapolis and Detroit. A death toll of 780 is often mentioned for Canada. Yet, this event is rarely mentioned by the U.S. media, probably because heat waves are silent killers and don't cause massive property destruction. It seems to be better remembered in Canada.