It’s hot, but North Texas’s 2011 still no match for the record 1980 heat wave

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Paul Ruekberg, NewsWatch Dallas

"The summer of 1980."

Just saying it causes some to sweat.

With the summer of 2011 now making its own mark, North Texans seem to be reluctantly reminiscing about DFW's hottest summer ever. The folks at Yahoo! say the term "summer of 1980 texas" has been spiking in Web searches all month.

The disastrous heat wave of 1980 killed more than 1,250 people across the country, including at least 60 here in Texas, according to statistics from the NWS Southern Region Headquarters in Fort Worth.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) National Climatic Data Center records indicate that the drought and heat wave of 1980 caused an estimated $55.4 billion in damage. The heat wave in South Texas alone was blamed for $250 million to $500 million in livestock and crop losses.

The large-scale features were similar to the 2011 heat wave. In June 1980, as the westerlies (polar jet stream winds at 250 mb) migrated northward, a strong upper-level ridge built over the southeastern U.S. and Southern Plains states.

"The … weather conditions at Dallas-Fort Worth on a day during the heat wave of 1980 reveals that combination of weather ingredients that typically produce phenomenally hot conditions in summertime in Texas," George W. Bomar wrote in Texas Weather (1983, University of Texas Press). "With high pressure prominent at all levels of the atmosphere over North Texas on June 26, 1980, a sky devoid of clouds — thereby allowing a maximum influx of solar radiation — teamed up with an arid desert like southwesterly wind to force the temperature at mid-afternoon to a level never before seen in the Dallas-Fort Worth area."

"Once it settles into position, the subtropical ridge often budges only a little for periods lasting as long as several weeks at a time," wrote Bomar, a meteorologist with the Texas Water Commission.

The heat wave scorched the ground and produced an all-time record of 69 100-degree days at DFW Airport. So far, 2011 doesn't compare in that department. Through Thursday, 2011 had seen 34 official 100-degree days (tied for 11th most in the record books).

In 1980, temporary relief arrived from Hurricane Allen which moved inland across southern Padre Island on Aug. 9-10, bringing heavy rain and flooding to South Texas. Tornadoes hit Austin and inflicted much damage. In DFW, high cloudiness allowed maximum temperatures to fall into the 90s, providing limited relief from the greatest summer heat wave.

Thirty-one years ago, the maximum daily average high temperature was 99 degrees. The current maximum from July-August is 96. And in 1980, Dallas-Fort Worth averaged 21 100-degree days, while the current annual average is 16.

Some other fascinating summer of 1980 statistics from the National Weather Service and NewsWatch Dallas records:

  • Jun 7 — 1st occurrence of at least 100º
  • Sep 16 — last occurrence of at least 100º
  • Highest temperatures:
  • 113 — Jun 26-27
  • 115 - Jun 26 at Love Field
  • 112 — Jun 28
  • 110 — Jul 2 & 18
  • Most 100 degree days in a year — 69 (No. 1)
  • Greatest consecutive days of 100 degrees (longest heat wave) — 42 (No. 1)
  • 13th driest year (22.08 inches of rain)
  • 24th warmest year (66.8º annual average temperature)

Editor's note: Paul Ruekberg is a Dallas-based independent journalist covering national and local news, sports and weather tracking/climatology for Dallas/Fort Worth. He is a member of the American Meteorological Society.