Deadly disasters linked to rising global heat have struck from coast to coast across the US in the past three months
Summer 2021 in the US broke the heat record set during the historic “Dust Bowl” summer of 1936, according to new government data.
From June until August, the US mainland average temperature was 74 degrees Fahrenheit – 2.6 degrees above normal. The National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration (NOAA) reported on Thursday that this “technically exceeds” the Dust Bowl summer in the mid-1930s but by a very small margin.
According to NOAA, a record 18.4 per cent of the US mainland experienced record high temperatures. California, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon and Utah all reported their hottest summer on record while 16 other states had a summer that was in its top-five warmest.
The 1936 heatwave was a catastrophe: killing more than 5,000 people and leading swathes of agricultural crops to wither and die. It came amid the “Dust Bowl” era of the 1930s, one of intense drought and crop failures across the Great Plains.
The desperation of the time, compounded by the economic fallout of the Great Depression, led to widespread hunger, poverty and mass migration, and was imprinted on the American consciousness by John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath and the images of photographer Dorothea Lange.
But while the Dust Bowl of the Thirties was largely down to inexperienced farmers, the extreme weather impacting the US in 2021 is linked to conditions caused by the climate crisis.
Long-term climate change trends show that the past decade has been the warmest on record with the six hottest years all since 2015. The top three hottest years on record are 2016, 2019 and 2020.
It has been a summer of deadly and destructive extremes across the US. It began with a record-breaking heatwave in the Pacific Northwest which lead to around 200 deaths.
Western states have also faced an unprecedented number of wildfires, many of which have surprised fire crews with their ferocity and volatility, sweeping through hundreds of thousands of acres in California, Oregon, Nevada and beyond. California is also in the grip of a mega-drought which has been exacerbated by repeated bouts of triple-digit temperatures and weeks-long blazes.
In August, heavy flooding hit southern states including Tennessee where 20 people were killed as waters destroyed houses, roads, cell phone towers and telephone lines.
Average US summer rainfall was close to 9.5 inches – nearly 1.2 inches above average, NOAA reported, making 2021 the eighth-wettest summer since records began.
Mississippi had its wettest summer on record while Alabama, Massachusetts, Michigan and New York had a summer that ranked among their five wettest. In Minnesota, it was the seventh-driest summer on record.
As the summer drew to a close, Category-4 Hurricane Ida slammed into Louisiana with winds of up to 150mph causing widespread destruction and power outages.
Days later, the remnants of Ida brought catastrophic flooding to the northeast leading to dozens of deaths. At least 50 people were killed in six Eastern states as record rainfall overwhelmed rivers and sewer systems. The majority were drowned in basement apartments and cars that quickly filled with water, or swept away by currents.
Louisiana updated its death toll from Ida on Wednesday to at least 26 people. The Orleans Parish Coroner’s Office confirmed at least nine heat-related deaths.
For the year to date, the average US temperature was 55.6 F – 1.8 degrees above the 20th-century average, making it 13th-warmest on record.