About 90 years ago the country was in the grips of a massive economic slump and a record-setting heat wave.
If it sounds familiar, it’s because we are living through a similar situation. Inflation rates are high, supply chains clogged and products scarce. Meanwhile the National Weather Service has reported several cities breaking all-time temperature records. Salt Lake City tied its hottest ever recorded temperature (107 degrees Fahrenheit) last week, and as of Wednesday 100 million Americans were under a heat advisory.
Summer of 1936
In 1936, before air conditioning was a common household amenity, Americans slept in yards and on fire escapes to avoid the heat during the country’s hottest ever recorded summer, according to the Farmers Almanac.
North and South Dakota, which on average are temperate in the summer, saw scorching temperatures of over 120 degrees. The Great Depression and the Dust Bowl added misery upon misery.
The upper Midwest, Plains and Great Lakes regions saw the worst of this scorching summer, according to data from the National Weather Service. In July alone, Midwestern cities recorded between 13-18 days over 100 degrees. Crops and livestock died due to reduced rainfall, and the intense heat killed an estimated 5,000 people.
Why was it so hot?
Scientists don’t think that human-induced climate change was to blame for the heat wave of 1936. Researchers at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science found that both oceans off of the wast and west coasts were unusually warm at the same time that year. These conditions reduced spring rainfall resulting in the Dust Bowl and record-high inland temperatures.
“Only very rarely have we seen these very specific ocean regions warm at the same time over the past century,” said Dr. Markus Donat, from the ARC center. “But those combined warm anomalies were never as strong as during the two record breaking years of 1934 and 1936.”
How does this summer compare?
It is a lot warmer now than it was in 1936. The earth’s average temperature has been climbing every year. So why was the summer of almost 90 years ago hotter?
Climate and weather have important distinctions. Weather refers to the short term conditions of the atmosphere, while climate refers to the weather of a specific area over a long period of time, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. While the weather this time of year in 1936 was hotter in certain regions, the overall climate was cooler. Weather naturally fluctuates over time, even if the climate as a whole is warmer.
The strenuous economic conditions the country is facing now, along with warmer-than-average temperatures may give some a sense of déjà vu, but the current conditions are not as deadly as back then—thanks, in part, to modern air conditioning. Though recent heat waves haven’t been as deadly, the NOAA says summer 2021 temperatures were “neck and neck” with the Dust Bowl.
However, research indicates that were we to experience the same ocean warming as in the 1930’s, the results could be catastrophic.
“The U.S. has been very fortunate that it has not seen a repeat of this coincident ocean warming at such a level,” Donat said. “Should this ocean warming reoccur in exactly the same constellation, because of climate change it is likely the temperature impacts would be even more devastating and those old records may be surpassed.”