4 deadly heatwaves from history

Little Italy in the 19th century and extreme drought in the Entrepenas reservoir
Left: Mulberry Street in New York City's Little Italy circa 1900 (Public Domain) | Middle and Right Images: Shutterstock.com | Right: Photo of extreme drought in Entrepenas reservoir, in Castile, Spain.

History's hottest summers

Heatwaves are becoming increasingly common in the 21st Century, impacting lives and shaping the world around us. Like all extreme weather, there’s a variety of reasons as to why this is happening. Global warming, natural phenomena, and improvements in meteorology all play their part in causing the extreme weather events around the world.

Though heatwaves have become more commonplace throughout the 20th century there’s a lot that we can learn from the years gone by.

So let's take off our woolly jumpers and look at four dramatic periods in history, which were shaped by rising temperatures...


1. New York Disaster - 1896

The first Industrial Revolution would have been about 50 years old when a 10-day heatwave in August claimed the lives of 1,500 people in New York. Most of the deaths were young labourers from the packed tenement dwellings in the Lower East Side, who had been working in the intense heat.

It’s a disaster that’s largely been forgotten, perhaps due to the lower social class of the unfortunate victims. Theodore Roosevelt, then a police commissioner who would later become the 26th president of the United States, led the emergency effort to distribute free ice to the most vulnerable. It’s been noted that Roosevelt never forgot his experience in the burning back alleys of some of the worst affected areas and may have even impacted positively on his future life in office.


2. The Great Stink - 1858

It’s possible that the so-called ‘Great Stink’ may have been as a result of the Industrial Revolution and early signs of global warming. Between 1831 and 1851 the population of inner London increased by over 700,000 (by 1861 this figure was way over 1,150,00) as London's Victorian skyline began to change. The increased volumes of detritus and human excrement that had been exponentially dumped into the Thames, took its vengeance during an unusually hot summer in July and August of 1858 in the form of a really, really bad smell.

When the odour, commonly describe as akin to rotting corpses, started to affect the workings of parliament it was clear that something more than just pouring lime into the Thames was urgently required. Fortunately, in response to the stench, Sir Joseph William Bazalgette began work on his ingenious underground sewer system, and it’s been instrumental in keeping London free from the worst excesses of toilet odour ever since.


3. European Heatwave - 1757

It’s believed that the 1757 heatwave may have been the hottest prior to 2003. However, in the days before modern medicine situations could have been exaggerated due to a lack of understanding of certain medical matters. For example, in his essay ‘On the Extraordinary Heat of the Weather in July 1757, and its Effects,’ influenza expert John Huxam described the effects of the unusually hot weather thus: “the consequences of this extremely hot season were haemorrhages from several parts of the body; the nose especially in men and children, and the uterus in women.”

But it wasn’t all doom and gloom. Acclaimed writer and MP, Horace Wimpole, displays more than just a touch of dramatic hyperbole when he wrote to a friend, “I have made the tour of my own garden but once these three days before eight at night, and then I thought I should have died of it.” He also described the weather as “magnificent”, a surprisingly un-English sentiment for a nation renowned for its ability to moan about the climate in perpetuity.


4. European Drought - 1540

The drought of 1540 may have even been a part of a megadrought, a phenomenon when a drought lasts two decades or more. It extended from Italy to Germany, France to Poland and included Spain and Morocco, and may have claimed as many as half a million lives, most likely as a result of dysentery due to the lack of fresh, flowing water.

In addition to the livestock that perished in their droves, soil desiccation samples tell us that rivers ran dry and forests spontaneously combusted in the heat, but in the midst of all this misery, it was also noted that fruit trees blossomed twice, and the wine was both plentiful and of remarkable quality.

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