By Gary McManus, Oklahoma Climatological Survey
The Heatwave of 1980
This is a chronicle of the summer heat wave of 1980, remembered by contemporary Oklahomans as the deadly summer that would not end.
The summer of 1980 was not the state’s hottest
The problem did not lay with the heat itself; Oklahomans are fully accustomed to sweltering in the summer, biding time until those first cool fronts of fall make their way down from the north. The defining characteristic of the summer of 1980 was the relentlessness of the heat. Healdton reached the century mark 83 times from June through September, an astounding 68 percent of the possible days during those months. In comparison, the Dust Bowl year of 1934 saw Jefferson hit 100 degrees only 70 times, while Hollis did the same 80 times in 1936. For Healdton, the temperature readings first went to triple digits on June 18, and stayed that way for a couple of days. After a brief respite, high temperatures skyrocketed into the 100s again on June 23, staying that way for 42 consecutive days until August 3. The heat did not end there, unfortunately. Across the state, high temperatures soared into the 100s as late as September 22. At that point, temperatures slowly drifted to more seasonable environs. Finally, a strong cold front late that month put the final nail in the coffin of the memorable heat wave, the triple-digit temperatures but a memory as Oklahomans basked in autumn-like 50s and 60s for high temperatures.
The sea of asphalt that pervades Oklahoma City intensified the heat. Record-high temperatures for Oklahoma’s capital were tied or broken 18 times during 1980, and the third-highest temperature ever recorded for Oklahoma City was set on August 2 with a reading of 110 degrees (113 remains Oklahoma City’s highest recorded temperature, from July 11, 1936). High temperatures of greater than 90 degrees occurred on 71 consecutive days, from June 23 until September 1 (it should be noted that after this one day respite, temperatures elevated above 90 degrees once again for 14 consecutive days).
Although nearly impossible to measure accurately, deaths due to extreme temperatures were the largest impact of the 1980 heat wave. Estimates of up to 80 lives were considered lost due to heat-related causes. That figure might be conservative, since many brain strokes and heart failures are also due to extreme heat, yet not labeled so. Nationwide, the 1980 heat wave is blamed for 1,250 deaths.
As an agricultural state, the impacts on Oklahoma were obviously far-reaching.
Poultry producers reported massive losses, as millions of birds died, their inability to sweat, along with the added insulation of feathers, signing their death warrants. The impact to the cattle industry was similar. As ponds dried up and feed fields withered, ranchers were forced to sell their cattle. The increased volumes of cattle for sale drove prices down, which further exacerbated the cattle ranchers’ cash flow problems.
Crops also felt the double-whammy of heat and drought. The wheat crop, which relies on the weather from September-May more so than the summer months, was the second-largest on record at that time. It was the row crops, such as peanuts and cotton, which bore the brunt of the devastation. Enough precipitation fell during spring for the peanut crop to be planted, but the lack of rain through summer doomed much of the crop. Many farmers had relied on irrigation in the past to survive drought, but even irrigation supplies dwindled by mid-summer.
Excessive water use quickly became problematic for Oklahoma communities. At the height of the summer heat, water shortages struck 273 water systems, which served over 350 communities. Theft of water started to have a severe impact on reserves. A loss of 324,000 gallons to thieves was reported by one community alone. As if the shortages were not bad enough, the water supply infrastructure had begun to deteriorate as the ground dried out and shifted, breaking pipes and mains. Tulsa was forced to implement water rationing for the first time in several decades due to diminishing supplies in source lakes.