When heat becomes our enemy


The heat is on! Temperatures hitting around the 30°C level on the Canada Day long weekend and continuing this week are the surest indicators that the hot days of summer have finally arrived.
Meanwhile, the Office of Chief Provincial Public Health Officer issued a warning for Manitobans to prepare for exposure to heat and ultraviolet rays from the summer sun. “Heat affects the body’s ability to regulate temperatures,” announced the recent press release from the public health officer. “The body is always trying to conserve temperature (about 37°C or 98.6°F), but if exposure is prolonged, dehydration, exhaustion, other serious injuries or, rarely, death may occur.”
The advice given is to drink plenty of water, avoid too much sun, plan outdoor activities during the cooler times of day, take a cool bath or shower, check on others — relatives and neighbours — when it gets too hot, and limit alcohol consumption. In extreme cases, emergency medical care would be required.
The statement that death really occurs is essentially true. But hot summer weather is occasionally accompanied by other deadly conditions, such as was the case last Saturday in the U.S. A rare “super derecho” storm — derecho is Spanish for “straight” — with hurricane-force winds swept across a 1,100-kilometre stretch from the U.S. Midwest to the Atlantic Ocean. In the storm’s wake, millions of people were left without power. Without electricity, air conditioners don’t function and people are transported to another era when extremely hot weather did bring about loss of life. More than a dozen people were killed by last weekend’s storms and heat in the U.S. 
Climate scientists in the U.S. claimed that the oppressive heat waves, resulting in devastating floods from giant deluges and wild fires caused by severe droughts  — seemingly contradictory — are a glimpse of the effects of global warming.
“This is what global warming is like,” Jerry Meehl, a climate specialist at the National Centre for Atmospheric Research, told the Huffington Report, “and we’ll see more of this as we go into the future.”
While this may be the majority view of climatologists, some still believe the weather conditions were only Mother Nature at her most extreme. The believers in global warming warn that the future will result in longer and more intense heat waves.
That Mother Nature has been particularly cruel in the past when it comes to death-dealing heat is an historical fact. It’s been hot recently in our province, but it hasn’t been as hot as when the deadliest heat wave in Ontario and southern Manitoba history struck from July 5 to 17, 1936. Temperatures at times then exceeded 40°C and claimed 1,180 lives — mostly the elderly and infants. Four hundred of the deaths were from drowning as people sought relief in the water from heat that was so intense it twisted steel railway lines and bridge girders, buckled sidewalks, wilted crops and baked fruit hanging from trees.
“Seventeen persons died and 21 persons were sent to hospitals, in the Winnipeg district,” announced the July 13, 1936 Winnipeg Free Press, “Saturday and Sunday, the result of heat prostration, in the worst temperature toll in the hottest week-end in Winnipeg history.”
According to the newspaper, the temperature hit 108°F (42.2°C) by 2 p.m. on Saturday, establishing an all-time record that still stands today. Sunday’s temperature wasn’t much of a relief, despite dropping by four degrees to 104°F (40°C). 
“Never in all history has there been such a hot day in Winnipeg as Saturday,” continued the 1936 Free Press article. “Indication of the torrid hours ahead came early in the morning as a southwest breeze seemed to carry on its wings hotter and hotter temperatures. At noon the wind was like a stifling draft from an open furnace ...” In the days before widespread use of air conditioning, there was little people could do to escape the heat.
“Nearly as hard hit by the terrific temperature as the humans were the animals. Nearly 30 horses died in Winnipeg ... Harry Clifford, Winnipeg Humane Society inspector, alone attended seven calls to stricken horses (at the time, horses were still used to pull delivery wagons in Winnipeg) on city streets, Saturday. Five of these died. In addition, other calls were: dogs, 10, cats, two.”
In the days leading up to the record-breaking temperature of 42.2°C, from July 5 to 10, the temperatures recorded in Winnipeg were in order: 98°F (36.6°C), 97°F (36.1°C), 106°F (41.1°C), 92°F (33.3°C), 94°F (34.4°C), and 99°F (37.2°C).
The Friday temperature of 37.2°C was blamed for five people in the city needing hospitalization with two in serious condition. One of the most serious cases was a 50-year-old man striken by the blazing sun while working in a sewer excavation project at Magnus Avenue and McPhillips Street.
The heat wave triggered a massive drought across the prairies, compounding the effects of the Great Depression’s faltering economy. Prairie farmers literally lost their farms as dry topsoil was blown away. According to the July 18 Free Press crop report: “All-time records for high temperatures on the prairies were shattered and nothing but scattered showers and spotty rainfall have been experienced since June 16. Under these circumstances the western wheat crop, which two weeks ago gave considerable promise, has withered and faded until severe drought conditions prevail over two-thirds of the grain growing sections of the west.” An accompanying map showed the drought stretching from Emerson to the Saskatchewan border in Manitoba.
“Winnipeg’s longest and hottest heat wave tumbled to a brief ending in spray and spume after 5:30 p.m., Monday (July 13), in a storm of whirling wind, driving dust, torrential rain, flashing lightning, and crashing thunder,” reported the July 14 Free Press. The relief from the heat came at a heavy cost as lightning killed one man at Ile des Chenes and others were injured in the storm. The storm caused great fluctuations in the temperature, although the heat returned after the storm passed.
On July 15, there was some respite from the oppressive heat — the high was just 88°F — but that was short lived.
“Over 90-degree temperatures, Friday, on Winnipeg’s 13th day of jungle warmth, added four more names to the roll of heat prostration victims which now totals 43,” reported the July 18 Free Press. “Another Thursday death not previously reported brought the fatalities up to 30.”
We can be thankful that we are now in a better position to deal with a heat wave rivalling July 1936. But as shown in the U.S. last week, there still remains a fine weather line that can be crossed at any time, resulting in life-threatening consequences, despite all the modern tools we have at our disposal.