A silent killer, the heat wave of 1980 remains among the nation’s deadliest weather events ~ The Washington Post

Thousands may have died in the heat wave 40 years ago.


A capture of the front page of The Washington Post on July 17, 1980, the day after Washington hit 103 degrees during a historic heat wave in the Lower 48 states.

July 11 at 9:40 AM

Like 2020 has been, 1980 was a pretty rough year for the country, too. Mount St. Helens erupted. The Iranian hostage crisis was ongoing. Turbulent economic and political years were coming to a head with a much-anticipated presidential election.

The year also brought one of the deadliest weather events in U.S. history, but one that may not be on the tip of the tongue, in the form of a heat wave.

While the National Climatic Data Center lists the direct death toll from the 1980 heat wave as 1,260, it also notes that the estimated indirect death toll from heat stress may have been as high as 10,000. By comparison, some 6,000 to 12,000 were killed, in various estimates, by the 1900 Galveston Hurricane, the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history.

Because heat waves do not leave behind a trail of destruction and receive the media attention of many disasters, they are often referred to by scientists as “silent killers.”

You know a heat wave was big if, in Texas, where everything is big, especially hot summers, it sears a deep brand into the record books 40 years later.

It has never been hotter at Dallas-Fort Worth, or extremely hot for as long, as it was in 1980. But it was far more than Texas that suffered in 1980, as a heat wave of unusual size and intensity expanded across much of the South, Midwest and East.

Agricultural losses from the heat wave and associated drought exceeded $60 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars, according to Department of Homeland Security estimates. The poultry industry was particularly hard hit, with millions of birds succumbing to extreme temperatures.

The Centers for Disease Control estimates that an average of 658 people per year die of heat-related illness in the United States, though some experts estimate that number may be over 1,000.

Extreme heat will become an issue in some regions in the days ahead, as a “heat dome” of high pressure continues to develop over the central United States, expanding eastward and northward at times. The full expanse and intensity of the coming heat wave are yet to be determined, but temperatures will certainly be life-threatening in many areas for those without proper shading or hydration.

Washington, through Friday, has already had 15 consecutive days of high temperatures at or above 90 degrees. The record for longest 90-degree streak is 21, last occurring in 1988, but also in 1980. Washington’s record number of days at above 90 was also set in 1980, at 67, then tied in 2010.

Washington’s heat peaked on July 16 in 1980, when it hit 103 degrees, its highest temperature in nearly 37 years. Then there was a second surge of heat in late July and the first half of August.

At the time, summer 1980 was considered the worst U.S. heat wave since 1954, and it has stood the test of time since for the breadth and intensity of its extremes.


Weather map showing high-altitude weather pattern and enormous heat dome on July 9, 1980. (National Weather Service)

Dallas-Fort Worth, no stranger to extreme heat in almost any summer, still has heat records dominated by 1980, including:

  • All-time highest temperature, 113 degrees on June 26 and 27.
  • Longest streak of days with high temperatures of at least 100, 42.
  • Longest streak of days highs temperatures of at least 90, 79.
  • Hottest month, based on average temperature, 92 for July 1980.

Every daily record high from June 24 to July 5, plus seven more later in July, still date to 1980 for Dallas-Fort Worth. Since records began in 1898 at the station, now housed at the international airport, five of 10 days with highs of 110 or higher occurred that sizzling summer 40 years ago.

Memphis and Little Rock each recorded its longest streak of 100-plus degree days, at 15 each, in early to mid-July.

The heat wave tended to spread east with time, with Washington’s record 90-degree streak starting in late July and extending to August 14.

~~~  CONTNUE  ~~~

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