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Infamous Heat Waves in History

Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher who writes about various subjects, including education and creative writing.

Heat waves are not as dramatic as earthquakes or tornados; however, they kill more people annually than the other two combined.

Heat waves are not as dramatic as earthquakes or tornados; however, they kill more people annually than the other two combined.

A Silent Killer

The North American Heat Wave of 2011 proved to be a record-breaker throughout North America. Several regions in the United States and Canada recorded record highs in temperature and/or humidity. It was also deadly. More than 40 people died as a direct result of a succession of hot days that regularly reached 113 Fahrenheit within the span of two summer months.

The death toll pales in comparison to other previously recorded heat waves. However, it’s receiving more press coverage than the others. This is a complete change considering that heat waves were never seen as important or compelling news in the past. This natural disaster is not as dramatic as an earthquake or a tornado; however, it kills more people annually than the other two.

Many of the famously recorded heat waves took place in the 20th and 21st centuries. They have struck nearly every part of the globe, and they’ve been responsible for numerous natural catastrophes and economic disasters. Its effect has no boundaries; developed and underdeveloped countries alike have been hit by staggering heat for long periods of time.

According to Eric Klinenberg’s 2002 article, more than 400 Americans die from heat-related illnesses in a typical year. In other words, heat waves kill more people in the US than any other natural disaster combined. However, heat waves are slow and lingering, and (as Klinenberg points out) preventable.

“Dangerous heat always comes announced, and it’s fairly easy to prevent human damage,” he wrote. “Victims of heat tend to wilt gradually, alone at home, out of touch with family, friends, and social-services providers who could save their lives . . . by treating them with water or bringing them to an air-conditioned place.”

So, how serious is this silent killer? A look back at some of the most serious heatwaves in recent recorded history can give a hint to that.

Some of these were:

  • The 1936 North American Heat affecting U.S. and Canada;
  • The Chicago Heat of 1995;
  • The 2003 European Heat Wave (also known as the 2003 French Heatwave since the country had more deaths recorded there);
  • The 2006 North American Heatwave; and
  • The 2015 India Heatwave.

This list does not include the 2010 Russian Heatwave that killed an estimated 55,736, or the deadly 2021 Pacific Northwest Heatwave, that was caused by a “heat dome” that hovered above Northwest United States and Western Canada. This particular heatwave:

  • broke heat records in the area,
  • caused massive wildfires in Canada (which destroyed a town), and
  • Killed countless people in Portland and Seattle, which are two cities not accustomed to triple-digit heat for several weeks.

1936 North American Heat Wave

North America has been hit by several major heat waves. The one that struck in 1936 is considered the most severe in modern American history. The timing of it was terrible, too. It took place during a time when the United States and Canada were in the midst of the Great Depression. Also, the 1930s was one of the driest decades. This was the era of several severe droughts and the Dust Bowls.

During the summer of 1936, seven states hit record highs while an additional 36 states had above-normal temperatures. The Canadian provinces of Ontario and Manitoba set record highs above 110 degrees Fahrenheit.

“. . . think of the great Chicago fire of 1871. It killed less than half as many people. Other recent catastrophes, such as the Northridge, Calif. Earthquake of 1994 or Hurricane Andrews of 1992 killed one-tenth and one-twentieth the numbers of people respectively.”

— Eric Klinenberg

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The heat wave was devastating on humans. In an era before air-conditioning, urban areas such as Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Toronto, and other North American urban areas sizzled. More than 1,693 people, mostly the elderly, perished in these cities (some estimates claim as many as 5,000 may have died of symptoms caused by excessive heat).

Also, farmers were affected economically. Crops were destroyed by the heat, and the price of corn and wheat soared. Some farmlands remained barren or parched until September, when the temperature returned to its normal levels.

1995 Chicago Heat Wave

Between 1936 and 1995, there were several deadly heat waves: New York City (1972, 1984), St. Louis (1980), Philadelphia (1993), Dallas (1998), and Milwaukee (1995) (Klinenberg, 2002). The heat wave that hit Chicago in 1995 proved to be the worst.

Fifty-nine years after the summer of 1936, the city was racked by higher-than-average temperatures. Within one week in July, 739 people died. The situation was so bad that refrigerated truck trailers were placed near morgues and hospitals. The trailers were used to store bodies which had inundated these facilities.



As usual, the elderly were hit hard. Also, the poor or those without air conditioning were among the victims.

Klinenberg compared the deaths from this heat wave with another famous disaster in the city, as well as with other natural catastrophes in the 1990s.

“To place the 1995 heat wave in context,” he wrote, “think of the great Chicago fire of 1871. It killed less than half as many people. Other recent catastrophes, such as the Northridge, Calif. Earthquake of 1994 or Hurricane Andrews of 1992 killed one-tenth and one-twentieth the numbers of people respectively.”

Still, this heat wave would later be dwarfed by the one that hit France and Europe in 2003.

The French Heat Wave of 2003

Actually, the heat wave that hit France in August of 2003 affected much of Europe. Record heat was reached in several countries, and many of them had substantial death tolls (final estimates for Europe was 71,310, making it the deadliest thus far). France was hit the hardest.

According to a government-commissioned report from the National Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM), the death toll was estimated to reach 14,802 in France alone.

Again, the elderly took the brunt of the heat. Many in Paris succumbed to it during the height of the heat wave when temperatures reached 104 degrees Fahrenheit. Another reason the numbers were so high was that France was a country that rarely had households and buildings with built-in air conditioning systems.

At first, government estimates had the numbers at 11,435. However, the heat didn’t kill some people instantly. According to a 2003 USA Today report, many were “greatly weakened during the peak temperatures but did not die until days later.”

Numbers Can Be Deceptive

The number of deaths associated with the heat waves mentioned can be deceptive. Some stats measure those who died as a direct result of the heat waves. Others include those that may have died in association with the heat wave. This may involve the exasperation of an illness the victim may have had or an accidental death that may have occurred when the victim tried to deal with the heat.

During the 1936 Heat Wave, it was reported that several men, women, children, and the elderly died from drowning. Many didn't know how to swim but took refuge from the heat by jumping into the nearest body of water.

Also, there are cases in which it is undetermined if a victim died as a result of the heat wave or from other factors that may or may not be related to the heat wave.

2006 North American Heat Wave and Beyond

In the summer of 2006, much of the United States and Canada went through another deadly heat wave. In this case, 225 people died. July 15 was the first day. On this day, Pierre, South Dakota, baked in 117 degrees Fahrenheit of heat.

During the period between July 15 and July 22, nearly every state (except for Alaska, Minnesota, and North Dakota) recorded temperatures of 90 degrees Fahrenheit or greater.

In California, 164 deaths were attributed to heat-related illnesses. The state's Central Valley and Southern California were racked by humid heat, which is unusual for these two regions.

The continent would experience other localized heat waves in the years to come. Finally, in 2011, much of the United States and Canada were affected by a similar heat wave. By this time, heat waves were finally recognized as a natural disaster. There was more coverage by the media.

These heat waves are not the first, nor will they be the last. Trends indicate that the average temperature will continue to rise each summer. Also, the people at risk - the poor and the elderly - will continue to be the victims. The heat waves can’t be prevented. However, deaths can be prevented if certain precautions are taken.

India, 2015

As of this writing (June 1st 2015), the situation in India is looking very grim. The death toll is nearing 2000 as temperature hover 15 to 20 Celsius above normal. According to the Brussels-based organization, Emergency-Event Database, this is currently the fifth-deadliest heat wave in recorded history.

Much of the country has been affected. This is particularly true for the nation’s poor who have been hit the hardest.

We had an unusually cold and wet March and April and then from the first week of May, the temperature suddenly started to increase and the ramp up was very, very fast,

— Chandra Bhushan, deputy director for Center for Science and Environment

According to Voice of America News, many in the country are clinging to the hope that the monsoon season—which often begins about this time—will bring rain and cooler weather to the southern regions of the country.

However, Chandra Bhushan, deputy director of the New Delhi-based Center for Science and Environment, best sums up the situation:

“Generally there is a slow ramp up of temperature . . . but that did not happen. We had an unusually cold and wet March and April and then from the first week of May, the temperature suddenly started to increase and the ramp up was very, very fast," Bhushan explained. "What it means is in a very short period of time, the temperature increased by close to 15 to 20 degrees [Celsius]. (from VOA News, 2015)

The New Norm of Heat Waves

There's a new norm when it comes to summers. It's inevitable that monster heat waves are going to hit somewhere and shatter previous stats.

Just about every record listed in this article has been surpassed. In addition, heat waves are becoming more prevalent. And nowhere is safe.

Places such as Alaska and regions within the Arctic Circle have experienced 90-degree heat. These regions are not known for this. Even Europe as a whole has experienced back-to-back heat waves throughout the summer of 2019.

The results are catastrophic. Forest fires throughout Canada, Alaska, and Scandinavia have become the norm. Greenland lost billions of gallons of water from its ice pack within a few days during a time of unprecedented heat.

If trends continue, more records will fall while the heat turns up.

The Six Deadliest Heat Waves

Official Death Toll may or may not include those who died from health problems associated with a heat wave. Information taken from Dr. Jeff Masters of
+ The 2015 Indian Heat Wave is ongoing at the time of this writing, and may surpa

YearLocationOfficial Death Toll*


Europe (in particular, France)















U.S. and Canada


Works Cited

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2015 Dean Traylor


Dean Traylor (author) from Southern California/Spokane, Washington (long story) on August 08, 2019:

First, an update has been added to this article. The summer of 2019 is turning out to be a real killer (literally and figuratively) when it comes to heat waves.

Secondly, the Pacific Northwest (especially in the interior of Washington) has experienced a long heat wave. For the last week and a half temperature have soared above 90 degrees in the Spokane area. It's worse in other parts of the state where numbers have reached past 100. The heat has resulted in at least two wildfires in the eastern Washington and the Idaho panhandle. As of this writing, the air quality in this normally tranquil and clean region of the state has been deemed unhealthy to breath and local news reports have warned people about prolonged activities outside.

Hazel Abee from Malaysia on June 09, 2015:

Across Asia, the heat wave is increasing. It is getting warmer and warmer. Even some of our hill resorts are warm now days. If not for the rain I guess, the heat would be our worst enemy here.

unknowingly we are all contributing to this climate changes .. environmental destruction and technology development.

Summer LaSalle from USA on June 08, 2015:

Excellent information on the 'silent' natural catastrophe. I cannot stand heat- I find it more miserable than pretty much anything. I think it's important that more people be aware of just how dangerous it can be.


Chance Harvey on June 08, 2015:

Very informative and interesting. The death toll is surprising. Thanks for sharing.

Krzysztof Willman from Parlin, New Jersey on June 06, 2015:

Heat waves are nature's silent killers indeed. Nice breakdown of some of our modern history's destructive weather makers. These events will only continue to pile on as our planet gets warmer and warmer unless one thinks global warming is a hoax that is.

greeneyedblondie on June 06, 2015:

That's sooo hot! That's why I love winter. It's so much easier for anyone to get together and create heat if it's too cold, but if it's too hot there is nothing you can do.

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