North Carolina has witnessed some impressive temperature highs, including the blistering June heatwave of 1954. Temperatures like these may be entertaining to compare, but they’re not all fun and games. They can have a devastating impact on the lives of the people experiencing them. Read on to discover the June heatwave in North Carolina that turned the state into a virtual oven!
What Causes Heatwaves in North Carolina?
According to the National Weather Service, most heatwaves in the Carolinas begin in Ontario, Canada. Three or four days prior to reaching the Carolinas, the high-pressure system in Canada moves southward. Westerly winds crossing the Appalachians as well as sinking atmospheric motion increase the heating effect. As the area of high pressure hovers over the state, it promotes warm weather and clear skies and traps the heat in place.
North Carolina’s Worst June Heatwave
Although there have been a few contenders, the worst June heatwave on record in North Carolina occurred in the year 1954. This came only two years after the historic summer heatwave of 1952. Numerous records were set across the state over the course of the summer of ‘54. Among other cities, Gastonia set a record for its all-time highest temperature on June 27th at 107°F. As the summer progressed, cities like Roxboro, Raleigh, and Charlotte set records of 104°F. Taken together, North and South Carolina had regions above 100°F almost every day between June 22nd and July 8th.
Other Notable June Heatwaves in North Carolina
Other significant heatwaves in North Carolina during the month of June occurred in the years 1952, 2011, and 2012. On June 27th, 1952, Wilmington recorded a record-breaking temperature of 104°F. That same day, Charlotte recorded its warmest low temperature in history at 79°F. In late June 2011, temperatures in the Carolinas rose into the 90s and 100s for a week; however, the highest temperatures occurred in July. Similarly, 2012 saw a devastating heatwave sweep over the Carolinas beginning on June 29th. Once again, the worst temperatures for North Carolina would come in July. This heatwave would kill at least 82 people across the United States.
Record-Breaking Heatwaves in Other Months in North Carolina
Below are instances of extreme temperatures in North Carolina in months other than June.
The Highest Temperature Ever Recorded in North Carolina
The highest temperature ever recorded in North Carolina was taken at Fayetteville Regional Airport Grannis Field on August 21, 1983. Unusually dry conditions statewide throughout May and June set the stage for a record-setting dry spell in July. As a result, conditions were already ripe for brutal temperatures in August when a stationary front combined with an incoming surface high to crank up the heat. By the end of the day on August 21, Fayetteville had set a new state record: a whopping 110°F.
As might be expected in the face of such temperatures, heat-related fatalities were high. Sadly, 17 people died in North Carolina in the summer of 1983 due to the excessive heat. This made it one of the deadliest heatwaves on record.
Albermarle – July 1940
The runner-up for the hottest temperature ever recorded in North Carolina occurred in the city of Albemarle in July 1940. This period was also one of the most severe sustained heatwaves on record in the eastern United States. A surface high-pressure system and a surface high combined to push the temperatures in the state to extreme levels. By July 28th, Albemarle recorded a record-setting temperature of 109°F.
The Impacts of North Carolina’s Worst June Heatwave
A recent study on the summer of 1980 explored the impacts of the 1954 record-breaking heatwave on the Midwest as well as parts of the Carolinas. It particularly focused on the metropolitan cities of St. Louis, Missouri and Kansas City, Kansas. This was due to the superior data available in those areas. However, the results can be generalized to other cities and states at the time.
The study cited research stating that 978 deaths occurred in 1954 in connection to the heatwave. While not every one of these deaths was conclusively a direct result of excessive heat, experts concluded that the high temperatures were a likely contributing factor. In particular, the elderly and the sick suffered in homes and hospitals without air conditioning. Notably, former President Harry S. Truman was in the hospital for surgery in June. At the insistence of his wife, the hospital staff eventually moved him to an air-conditioned room to aid his recovery.
Besides the physical impacts of the heatwave, some farmers also lost some or all of their crops and livestock to the extreme temperatures. Because of this, their financial losses were often severe. Interestingly, the heat had a positive financial impact on some business owners who operated air-conditioned stores or sold products such as ice cream and cold drinks. Likewise, those who sold summer gear or air conditioners generally did well.
Not only did hospitals and places of business struggle to function, but the heatwave had an impact on other areas of infrastructure. For example, the heat caused the contortion or buckling of a number of railroads and streets. Ironically, a Kansas City weather beacon malfunctioned due to the high temperatures and forecasted snow. Additionally, water and electricity usage increased dramatically as people struggled to cool off and power their air conditioners. This led to a significant strain on the system. Due to the abundance of air conditioning units in use, circuits frequently overloaded and triggered the safety protocols on transformers.
Heatwaves often combine with a lack of moisture to produce severe drought conditions. In the case of the 1954 heatwave, the lack of water became a significant problem as early as June. For example, three separate lakes in the St. Louis area dried up due to the oppressive heat. In addition to this, 56 of Missouri’s 114 counties reported a critically low water supply. The number of distressed counties would rise as the months wore on. Eventually, experts would declare 414 counties in eight states “drought disaster areas.”
The heatwave also impacted regional agriculture and plant life. Crops like corn and, in some cases, wheat suffered greatly compared to harvests from cooler summers. Various homegrown fruits and vegetables like tomatoes and peaches also produced smaller crops. Shrubs, trees, and other flora wilted under the burden of the high temperatures and dry conditions. Animals also struggled, notably zoo animals and livestock.
Preparedness and Response
In response to the heatwave, people were forced to install air conditioners in many hospitals, public buildings, and private homes. At that time, most homes did not have A/C. Those without air conditioning struggled to sleep, conduct business, recuperate, and generally function in their daily lives. Many public functions were postponed or cancelled until the heat eased up.
Some experts believe that the death toll from the ’54 heatwave might have been higher had the Midwest not suffered from high temperatures during the two previous summers. By that time, people in the region had become used to battling the heat. Some common survival strategies included staying in shaded areas, operating during the cooler hours of the day, sleeping outside or in basements, purchasing fans or air conditioners, installing awnings, and swimming to cool off. Governments also provided financial aid to farmers devastated by the heatwave.
The heatwave of 1954 indicated the crucial importance of being able to predict (and therefore prepare) for a severe heatwave. The careful management of water and energy resources is vital to preventing a crisis, especially with today’s increased demands. The widespread use of air conditioners, refrigerators, and so on allows most people to better survive a heatwave. However, these strategies also necessitate an improved source of energy to power it all.
Other impacts, such as the warping of roads or the devastation of crops, are more difficult to manage. Part of the government’s response to future incidents will be to find ways to alleviate the financial burden on affected parties like farmers.
Although a heatwave such as that experienced in June 1954 can be devastating, there are ways to manage the impacts. Air conditioning, avoiding the hottest parts of the day, and swimming to cool off are just a few strategies to survive the heat. By paying attention to weather predictions, it is possible to anticipate and appropriately respond to the risks of excessive heat.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © Ed Connor/Shutterstock.com
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