Q: There’s been a series of heat waves hitting much of the U.S. in recent weeks. Which heat waves have been the worst killers in the United States?
A: There’s no doubt that heat waves can cause a lot of fatalities, says weather expert Brent McRoberts of Texas A&M University. “In the last two months, more than 8,000 heat records have broken across the U.S. and so far this year, at least 76 deaths have occurred from the heat,” he notes. “The great Dust Bowl period of the 1930s covered more than 50 million acres, but the death count is really not known. In 1955, an eight-day heat wave killed 946 people in Los Angeles and in 1972, a 14-day heat wave killed 891 in New York City. By far, the worst heat wave occurred in 1980. During that summer, an estimated 10,000 people were killed nationwide and heat damages totaled $50 billion. The 1980 summer death toll far exceeded the annual national average of about 400 deaths that are attributed to heat.”
Q: What are some recent killer heat waves?
A: “In 1988, an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 people died from a summer heat wave in the central and eastern United States, and in 1995 more than 700 people died in Chicago,” McRoberts explains. “In 1999, a heat wave that gripped most of the U.S. killed more than 500 people. In 2003, one of history’s worst heat waves occurred in Europe when more than 35,000 people died. France was especially hit hard, and more than 14,000 French deaths were reported during the month of August.”
Weather Whys is a service of the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at Texas A&M University.