Green Room

The summer of 1980

posted at 3:40 pm on July 13, 2011 by

Where were you in the summer of 1980?  I was in Oklahoma City, working as a summer intern for one of the state agencies.  The summer of 1980 was the most persistently hot summer Oklahoma has seen since records have been kept; the summer of 2011 will have to go a considerable way to catch up with (much less surpass) it.

I mention this because on The Weather Channel this morning, a TWC reporter interviewed an Oklahoma City official who said the area has now seen the most days ever in which excessive heat advisories have been issued.  I have no doubt that the heat wave is miserable and seems never-ending to those in Oklahoma this summer (like the members of my family), but the city official’s statement doesn’t mean 2011 is the most persistently hot summer ever.  It means they weren’t issuing excessive heat advisories in 1980.

Here is a summary of the 1980 heat wave from the NewsOK Oklahoma Weather Blog:

Record-high temperatures for Oklahoma’s capital were tied or broken 18 times during 1980, and the third-highest temperature ever recorded for Oklahoma City was set on August 2 with a reading of 110 degrees (113 remains Oklahoma City’s highest recorded temperature, from July 11, 1936). High temperatures of greater than 90 degrees occurred on 71 consecutive days, from June 23 until September 1 (it should be noted that after this one day respite, temperatures elevated above 90 degrees once again for 14 consecutive days).

As the weather blogger says, “The defining characteristic of the summer of 1980 was the relentlessness of the heat.”  Seventy-one straight days over 90 – nearly half of them 100 or more – took a tremendous toll on livestock, crops, and human lives.

July 1980 was also the driest July of the century for Oklahoma – less rainfall even than during the Dust Bowl – with a statewide average precipitation of less than half an inch.  I can personally attest that not one single drop of it fell in Oklahoma City.  The period of most intense heat coincided with 41 straight days in which most of the state saw no rainfall at all.  The level of Lake Hefner, in northwest Oklahoma City, was the lowest most people had ever seen it; news crews visited it almost every day to mourn the shrinkage.

And, of course, if you didn’t have air conditioning in car or home – and a lot of people didn’t; my car had no A/C – you spent much of the summer soaked in sweat.  The nighttime lows hovered between 85 and 90.  One of the main things I remember is working all day in a skirt and pantyhose, which was standard attire in 1980.  There was nothing like leaving the state office building between 4:30 and 5:00 PM each afternoon and getting into a big metal car that had been baking in the sun and 100+-degree heat since 7:30 that morning.  I carried a washcloth in my purse to grip the door handle with, and laid two beach towels on the seat and seat-back as a buffer against the burning heat.

The heat wave of 1980 was felt across North America.  As many as 1700 lives are estimated to have been lost due to the excessive heat, along with over $50 billion in economic losses (in 2007 dollars).   But the worst heat wave in North America in the past century actually occurred in 1936.  Another intense, prolonged heat wave hit the central continent in the summer of 1954.  According to the American Meteorological Society, in an article about the 1980 heat wave published in 1981:

Much more hostile conditions have existed in the past, particularly during the 1930′s and the 1950′s.

It’s worth remembering that 1980 was worse than 2011 (although that may change), and the 1950s and 1930s were worse than 1980.

It’s also worth remembering that the heat waves occurred in conjunction with some of the coldest winters the continent has seen, along with a high incidence of tornadoes and intense hurricanes.  Many of the 20th century’s North American records were set in 1935 and 1936; rain and snowfall records that still stand were set in the northwest, temperatures in Fargo were below zero for 37 straight days, 107 people died across the country in river flooding in the spring.  1953-54 saw only slightly less precipitation and cold, although some areas of the northwest set rainfall records that still stand.  The two-year period spawned tornadoes even more intense than the record-shattering years of the 1930s.

And many Americans in middle age or older today remember the hard winters of 1978 and 1979, still the coldest on record for much of North America.  It was in the wake of these winters – which also hit Europe and parts of Asia hard – that ice-age prophets (if not certified climatologists) roamed the globe forecasting a catastrophic cooling of the earth.  (Notably, Europe was hard hit by wild weather in 1953 and 1954 as well, with unusual events including a disastrous flood of England, Scotland, and the Low Countries by the North Sea in 1953, and a tornado strike on London in 1954.)

None of these facts mean that the people suffering tornadoes and intense heat this year, or those being driven from their homes by floods and wildfires in the northern plains and the southwest, are enduring less than their predecessors in wild-weather-dom.  What they mean is that weather has been wild before.  Many of us who are no more than middle aged can remember it being worse in our lifetimes.  Our parents, and theirs, have similar memories; written records from decades or centuries ago confirm the same thing. 

Collated data and human anecdotal experience deliver the same message about weather:  it comes in cycles.  What you’re seeing on any given day is virtually guaranteed not to be the “worst” or “most” it’s ever been – “ever” includes at a minimum some 80,000 to 100,000 years’ worth of climate conditions suitable for human life, of which we have directly measured no more than about 150.  In fact, whatever you’re seeing today is probably not even the worst or most in the last 40 years.  Anecdote, transient impressions, and ignorance of the recent past should not be invoked to convince us that a given theory (like anthropogenic global warming/climate change) is invalid – but neither should they to convince us that it is valid.

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at The Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, The Weekly Standard online, and her own blog, The Optimistic Conservative.

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I was living in Athens, GA at that time and I recall that long hot summer vividly. Day after day of 100+ degrees. We had a plant on the front porch that literally withered, turned black and died in a day. I remarked on July 4 this year that as hot as it was, it had a long way to go to match the July 4, 1980 holiday, when in Athens Ga at 10 pm it was still more than 100 degrees with humidity in excess of 70%. Not a breath of wind. It felt like a sauna while we watched the fireworks.

Curmudgeon on July 13, 2011 at 4:49 PM

Hell, I was in Boston that summer and it was THE hottest summer I can ever remember! I was living in a non-air-conditioned dorm while in graduate school, and it was miserable. On July 4 a bunch of us went down to the Hatch Shell for the Boston Pops concert and fireworks, and it was hotter than blazes even after it got dark.

I remember coming back from a visit to my parents and walking across Harvard Yard with a hard-shell suitcase in my hand, and it was so hot my hand was sweating and I could not keep a grip on the suitcase.

It was like that the entire summer. Nobody had a tan because it was too hot to sunbathe.

rockmom on July 13, 2011 at 5:54 PM

I picked mid-July to report to Lackland AFB for boot camp. Everyone warned me that I would regret it due to heat. Little did they, nor I know that we would wind up marching outside just a few times. Everyday someone had to go check the heat index flag (IIRC Yellow, Blue & Black). So we wound up doing the drills in the shade under the barracks. If we absolutely had to march somewhere when Blue, we had to walk, not march and take a break every 15 mins. A couple of times, we bussed in when too hot to march. All the details regarding temperature is fuzzy, I just know we skated with doing at least half the marching, drilling etc due to heat.

Also in the midst of that 6 week training, we caught the rains & high winds from the hurricane that hit the gulf (Andrew??). The driving rain was so strong that we had about 2-3″ of water enter our 2nd floor dorm thru windows and doors which caused power outages & triggered the fire alarms and there we were at 3AM under our dorm in our skivvies until we could go back to bed after an hour or so.

So with this “heatwave”, the new airmen now processing thru Lackland should be thankful that they’re going to get reduced marching & drilling :D

AH_C on July 13, 2011 at 9:33 PM

Boston here too, yes it was pretty damn hot, overcast, and very humid most of that summer. ’81 was great though.

roy_batty on July 14, 2011 at 9:40 AM

I was born and raised in Oklahoma, and I remember that year well. It was the summer between 9th & 10th grade, and I was living in Crescent, about 30 miles north of OKC in Logan County. My brother graduated high school that year and was also at Lackland going through boot camp. Our high school band, of which I was a member, marched in the State Fair parade that August, wearing woolen uniforms and it was well over 100 degrees. After the parade, we got free admission to the fair. I ate a pulled pork sandwich and got onto the big swings. Big mistake. I got sick and threw it up while spinning around, spraying people below. I look back on it and laugh now, but was mortified when it happened. On a down note, our neighbor, Buddy Hayes, World War II veteran and retired Air Force, had worked outside that summer. He didn’t feel well afterwards, went and laid down in his bedroom on the a/c vent, and never woke up. He was a great man, and I really miss him. He was like a grandfather to me. He was one of many of the elderly who did not survive that heat wave. May he rest in peace.

Special K on July 14, 2011 at 10:15 AM

Great 1980 stories. I was hoping to hear from someone in California, as the comparison of 2011 with 1980 here would be instructive. While the whole Eastern half of the US is suffering this summer, it’s unseasonably — even apocalyptically — cool in the Golden State. This very week, SOCAL is under a weather pattern (cool, cloudy, jet stream dipping down over us) that we normally don’t see after about the third week of April.

I don’t know if this happened in 1980 or not. Would be interesting to hear from some old-timers in these parts. Southern Californians are kind of funny in the sense of not remembering weather or weather-years; it’s so much the same most of the time, I think, that it all runs together.

J.E. Dyer on July 14, 2011 at 2:27 PM

Hi, J.E. – I posted another comment but I think it is hung up in the queue somewhere.

I was in California in the first 2 weeks of January, 1981. It was unseasonably warm and dry for that time of year. When you follow these El Nino, El Nina cycles, my guess would be the 1980 summer was probably much like this years but all my relatives in CA have passed on to the other side so have no sources.

Greyledge Gal on July 14, 2011 at 2:31 PM

The times, they aren’t a-changing.

What makes headlines is what the current news reporters feel will dramatize events enough to sell their media. Nothing more, nothing less. “Most”, “least”, “hyper”, “ultra”, “extreme”, words used to describe events, products, people. Memories are only short in the sense that we live such short lives compared to the ages that have forgone. Imagine the news reporters commenting on the rainfall while Noah just shrugged, hammered and pitched. That may be a better use of “extreme rainfall” in a headline than anything we’d see in recent times. But don’t expect a living reporter to make any comparisons to that type event. Nor to the true Ice Age, nor the Permian Extinction event. Nor Cambrian.

I guess relevance matters as relative to 1980 the current high temps are approaching those days’ events. I wasn’t around in 1935-36 to compare but Mom was and she doesn’t remember them fondly. Her family was a tad more concerned with keeping beans on the table regardless/in spite of the weather. So relative to the weather, the Great Depression was more of a conversation piece. I think that should be the case today as well. Although it’s hot outside, if we don’t keep beans on the table, who cares how warmly the worms will feed?

Robert17 on July 15, 2011 at 9:17 AM