The heat is what everyone in West Michigan is talking about! And why not? We're in the middle of Excessive Heat Warnings issued by the National Weather Service, which will run for the rest of this week. Later this week, we may see our first triple-digit air temperature since July, 1999, and heat indices will likely top 100 degrees at least a couple of days. By the time we hit the weekend, we'll have had fifteen or so 90 degree days this summer, the third highest number since we started the millennium. We're on track to have the hottest summer in years. And the latest forecast from the Climate Prediction Center says we'll have a warmer than average July.
But folks who were around these parts back in the 1930s might tell you, "You ain't seen nothing!" The "Dust Bowl" years of the early and middle 1930s produced some of the hottest weather ever recorded in the United States -- and puts anything we've seen since to shame. Not that we haven't had significant hot spells lately: in 2005, we had twenty-seven 90 days; the Heat Wave of 1995 brought four days of intense heat in mid-July, peaking with a Heat Index of 124 on a day when the morning low was a sultry 82; hundreds of people in Chicago were killed by the heat; in the summer of 1988, our highs reached 90 an amazing 38 times, five of which were in the triple digits.
But nothing compares to the searing heat of the 1930s. And remember, that was BEFORE air conditioning, when many people didn't own their own homes, rather, they lived in multi-level apartment buildings, which of course were even hotter!
Consider these statistics from three summers in the 1930s: in the summer of 1931, the high temperature was at or above 90 forty-nine days, and three of those days were at or above 100. In the summer of 1934, the high hit 90 or higher fifty-two times, including a stretch of seven consecutive days in July when the temperature reached or exceeded 100. The average high temperature from July 20 through 26, was 104!
But the hottest heat wave of all -- the Mother of All Heat Waves-- happened in the summer of 1936. Though our high temperature reached or exceeded 90 "only" 41 times that summer, the period of July 7 through July 15, was unbearably hot. For nine straight days, the thermometer peaked at or above 100. Nine straight days! The average high temperature during that stretch was 104!
The heat wasn't confined to West Michigan; it was region-wide. It is estimated that at least 5,000 people died from the heat during that stretch of days, including at least 700 in Michigan, 500 of those in Detroit. Newspaper accounts from Detroit tell of numerous city residents sleeping outside -- in parks, where a little cool grass could be found -- rather than being cooped up in multi-level tenement buildings.
Of course, remembering past heat waves doesn't make it any cooler today! And since the heat will be around through the first half of the weekend, it's important to remember that if working or playing outside, take frequent rest breaks, apply sunscreen at least once every two hours, and drink plenty of water. If you don't have air conditioning, keep windows open and fans running for ventilation. Take this heat seriously! It is dangerous, particularly for the very young and very old.