Written by: William R. Deedler, Weather Historian

Though heat waves or hot spells generally occur nearly every summer, no heat wave compares in intensity nor in duration than the heat wave that occurred across Southeast Lower Michigan in the summer of 1936. For many of us, it was when our grandparents were in their young or middle-age adult years. Little, if any, exaggeration would accompany their tales of the oppressive heat experienced sixty years ago, back in July 1936.

The last week of June into the first week of July 1936 was quite variable with afternoon highs ranging from around 70 to near 90. Evidently, weather patterns were quite progressive. After a day or two of heat build up, a cold front would push through the area and sweep the heat to the south and east on a regular basis. A change in the weather pattern was heralded by a strong but dry warm front that pushed across the area midday on July 6th. Very warm air rushed north into Southeast Lower Michigan, causing the mercury to rise up to near 90 on the 7th, but this was merely a hint of the heat to come.

On the afternoon of the 8th, the temperature soared to just shy of 105 (104.4) degrees and thus, the unprecedented heat was on. For the next seven consecutive days, the mercury would "bubble" above the 100 degree mark (see Table 1). The oppressive heat was compounded by humidity levels generally ranging in the 30s and 40s during the afternoon hours. While those levels are relatively low any other time, when combined with temperatures 100+, the heat index or, how hot it really felt, ranged roughly from 110 to 130 degrees. Little, if any relief was found during the evening hours into midnight with temperatures ranging from the mid and upper 90s at the start (6 to 7 pm) to hovering still in the mid 80s at midnight. For a few hours before dawn, overnight low temperatures "cooled" into the mid 70s. Desert-like conditions were exaggerated by the non-existence of rain. The thirst of the parched land was left unquenched as not one drop of rain was officially recorded at the Detroit downtown office through the period.

Since this was 1936, the residents of Southeast Lower Michigan did not have the luxury of air conditioned homes, businesses or shopping malls to take refuge from the heat. Most people had to make do with the old standbys such as fans, blocks of ice from the Ice Man (the Ice Man cometh') or maybe by just taking a swim. While other heat waves in Southeast Lower Michigan have lasted longer, none had been longer accompanied by the fierce heat of this one. I was unable to find any documentation of heat related deaths (I'm not sure it was even done at this time), but with this intense of a heat wave, I'm sure there were cases.

The break in this torturous heat wave came without fanfare (storms). Not even a shower was noted in the log. Looking at the observations on the 14th...the wind shifted from the southwest to the northwest and then to the northeast. A lot of the characteristics of a "backdoor" cold front pushing south- southwest out of southern Canada. Occasionally these fronts will come through dry with an abrupt wind shift and falling temperatures. The temperatures fell from 104 at 200 85 at 400 pm to a relatively chilly 69 by midnight. The heat wave started with a 104 degree reading on the 8th and ended with the same on the 14th. The first drop of rain was long in coming and not observed until a measly .08 fell on the 23rd.

Table-1 - Summary of the daily highs, lows and resultant means
-------   for July 8th - 14th, 1936 in Detroit, Michigan.
           Date          High      Low       Mean
         July  8th       104 *      72        88
         July  9th       102        75        89
         July 10th       102        77        90 **
         July 11th       101        77        89 
         July 12th       100        76        88 
         July 13th       102        73        88
         July 14th       104        69        87
              *  Second highest all time temp 
              ** Second highest all time mean

Another, very notable heat wave that baked the area for a longer period of time but was not quite as hot, occurred in the late summer of 1953 from August 26th - September 3rd. An eleven day string 90 degrees or better, cooked the area. What's worse, nine of those days were 95 degrees or higher, with two of those hitting the century mark. Those two 100 degree days occurred near the end of the heat wave on September 2nd and 3rd, and with the exception of one other day, were the latest 100 degree days ever reported in Detroit (the latest 100 was also back in the "dust bowl" 1930s, on September 15th, 1939). Still another heat wave, in the Summer of '64, was one day longer (12) than the one in 1953 and has the "honor" of the longest heat wave on record when looking at just consecutive days of 90 degrees or greater. This heat wave extended from July 17th - 28th, 1964. There were no 100 degree days during this period, with the highest temperature being "only" 95.

On a more recent note and better in the memory of Southeast Lower Michiganders, is the hot summer of 1988, when a record amount of 90 degree or better days, 39 to be exact, produced one hot, sultry summer. The previous record was 36 days which again, occurred in "dust bowl 30s" (1934) when also, the hottest temperature of all time, (105 July 24th, 1934), occurred in Detroit. In addition to the record amount of 90 degree days in 1988, we topped the 100 mark 5 times, with the highest at 104 on June 25th. We missed the all time high by just a degree, but for those who remember, a hot, desert-like wind blew across the area that day as dew points dropped into the lower 60s, and humidities fell into the 20s.

The summer of '88 became the third hottest summer (Jun-Aug) ever recorded in Detroit with a average of 74.2. The "silver" medal for the second hottest summer goes to 1955, with an average of 74.4 degrees. During that hot summer, the month of July set the record for days of 90 degrees or greater in a month with 17. This was the primary reason why July 1955 became our hottest month ever in Detroit, with a average temperature of 79.1. We now come to our hottest summer, at least in the last 126 years (1870). The "gold" medal goes to 1995! That's right, just last year during the 3 month summer period (Jun-Aug), Detroit averaged 74.5 degrees. Strangely enough though, July 1995 didn't even place in the top 10 hottest months. The hot month last year was August, with an average temperature of 77.1, making it the hottest August on record. June also placed in the top 10, by tying for the eighth hottest.

All this "hot" writing has made me thirsty for something cool to drink! While I scope out the "fridge", take a look at some summer heat safety tips, courtesy of Mr. Jeff Boyne also stationed here at WSFO Pontiac/Detroit.

The Deadly Summer Heat

Written by: Jeff Boyne

In a normal summer, about a 175 Americans die as a result of the taxing effect that excessive heat and humidity can have on the body. In a disastrous heat wave of 1980 more than 1,250 people died in St. Louis, Missouri. Just last summer, Chicago experienced its worst weather-related disaster with 465 heat related deaths recorded during the period from July 11-27.

How Heat and Humidity Affects the Body:

The human body gets rid of excessive heat (above 98.6 F) by increasing the rate of the blood circulation. This causes the blood vessels to expand to accommodate the increased flow. The tiny blood capillaries in the upper layers of the skin are also put into operation. By doing this, the blood is able to circulate closer to the skin's surface and the excess heat in the body is able to be dispensed into the cooler atmosphere surrounding the body.

At the same time, water diffuses through the skin from the sweat glands in the form of perspiration. Sweating, by itself, does nothing to cool the body. Evaporation of the perspiration must take place in order for the process of sweating to be of any use. When perspiration evaporates, it takes some of the excess heat away from the body; thus, the body is cooled.

If high humidity accompanies the hot temperatures, the body will have a very hard time cooling itself down, because the perspiration on the skin will not evaporate off of the skin. As a result, the body will continue to try to cool itself down by sweating. This will not only cause the body to lose water, but it will also lose salt. If the body cannot cool itself down or if it loses too much salt, one of the following three heat disorders will result in the table-2 below.

Table-2 3 Types of Heat Disorders
Heat Cramps Painful spasms usually in the muscles of the legs and abdomen. Heavy sweating. Get the person to a cooler place. If the victim has no other injuries and can tolerate water, give one- glassful every 15 minutes for an hour.
Heat Exhaustion Heavy sweating, weakness, skin cold, pale and clammy. Pulse thready. Normal temperature possible. Fainting and vomiting. Get the person out of the heat and and into a cooler place. Have them lie down on their back and elevate their feet with something. Either remove or loosen the victims clothing Cool them by fanning and applying cold packs (putting a cloth between the pack and the victim's skin) or wet towels or sheets. Care for shock. Give the victim one-half glassful of water to drink every 15 minutes, if they can tolerate it. These first aid steps should bring improvement within a half hour.
Heat Stroke High body temperature (106 F or higher). Hot, dry skin. Rapid and strong pulse. Possible unconsciousness Heat stroke is a life-threatening situation. Call 911. Get the person out of the heat and into a cooler place. Cool the victim fast. Immerse them in a cool bath, or wrap the wet sheets around their body and fan it. Care for shock by laying the victim on their back and elevate the feet with something Wait for medical help to arrive. Also do not give anything by the mouth.

The most susceptible people to the above heat disorders are the very young, very old, chronically ill, overweight, those who work in hot places, and athletes. Studies indicate that, other things being equal, the severity of heat disorders tends to increase with age. Heat cramps in a 17-year old may be heat exhaustion in someone 40, and heat stroke in a person over 60.

The Heat Index:

This index is used to alert the public how hot it really feels when the Relative Humidity is added to the actual air temperature. These values were devised for shady, light wind conditions.

Table-3 Heat Index (or Apparent Temperature) Chart

Heat Index

Relative Humidity (%)
40 45 50 55 60 65 70 75 80 85 90 95 100
A 110 136

i 108 130 137

r 106 124 130 137

104 119 124 131 137

T 102 114 119 124 130 137

e 100 109 114 118 124 129 136

m 98 105 109 113 117 123 128 134

p 96 101 104 108 112 116 121 126 132

e 94 97 100 103 106 110 114 119 124 129 136

r 92 94 96 99 101 105 108 112 116 121 126 131

a 90 91 93 95 97 100 103 103 109 113 117 122 127 132
t 88 88 89 91 93 95 98 100 103 106 110 113 117 121
u 86 85 87 88 89 91 93 95 97 100 102 105 108 112
r 84 83 84 85 86 88 89 90 92 94 96 98 100 103
e 82 81 82 83 84 84 85 86 88 89 90 91 93 95
(°F) 80 80 80 81 81 82 82 83 84 84 85 86 86 87

With Prolonged Exposure and/or Physical Activity
Extreme Danger Danger Extreme Caution Caution
Heat stroke or sunstroke highly likely Sunstroke, muscle cramps, and/or heat exhaustion likely Sunstroke, muscle cramps, and/or heat exhaustion possible Fatigue possible is the U.S. government's official web portal to all federal, state and local government web resources and services.