Volume 4, Number 9, June 2014
There is hardly anyone around anymore, who remembers the summer of '54, although it was memorable. By some measures, the summer 60 years ago this year was the "worst" summer in at least the past 131 years.
It was also the end of a four-year stretch of summers that, in some ways, helped to change the face of Alabama for the past 60 years. More on that later. First, the numbers.
In an 1883-2013 reconstruction of summer daily high temperatures within 50 miles of Alabama's four biggest cities, the summer of 1954 was the hottest in that 131-year record. The summer of 1954 edges out 1902 by one tenth of a degree, with an average high temperature of 95.8° F. No other year is really close, although the summer of 1952 touched an average high of 95.03. (The 131-year average is 91.1° F, and no summer since 1954 has hit an average high of more than 93.5.)
That makes the summer of 1954 a few degrees warmer than normal, but how bad was it?
The average weather station in Alabama registers 73 days a year with temperatures of 90° F or warmer, ranging from only 45 days a year in Valley Head to 95 days a year in Brewton.
In 1954, looking at the entire state, the average weather station recorded 117 days with a high temperature of at least 90° F. Strung together, that's almost four months. By comparison, 1994 saw an average of only 33 days of 90° or higher temperatures.
Some days during the summer of 1954 were scorchers. The July 1, 1954, edition of the Huntsville Times, in addition to reporting on the French withdrawal from Indochina, noted:
|June Cracks All Records With 104 Degrees For City
An all-time record for June heat was set here yesterday at 3 p.m. when the thermometer hit 104 degrees at the local TVA sub-station.
Readings for the period of 2 through 4 p.m. were 101, 104 and 102 degrees. July started off today to bid fair for a crack at past records ...
On July 1 the temperature at Huntsville's TVA sub-station hit 106. (Official temperatures at the Huntsville airport were slightly cooler: 98 on June 30 and 102 pm July 1.) That doesn't mean the airport was a cool place to hang out. The official weather record at the old Huntsville airport recorded 18 days in June, July and August 1954 with a high temperature of 100° or higher, with an official high of 105° on three consecutive days (15-17) in August.
The rest of the state was just as toasty. Birmingham saw eleven days with highs of 100 or more, Muscle Shoals 18, Montgomery 20, and Tuscaloosa a wilting 28 summer days with a high temperature of at least 100°, including eight consecutive days in August.
The official high temperature for the year was 108°, reached three times: June 28 in Greenville and Selma, and August 16 in Belle Mina. The official record high in Alabama's recorded history is 112° on Sept. 5, 1925, in Centerville.
Did you know that when it gets hot and dry, rattlesnakes come out of the mountains? A newspaper story from Aug. 15, 1954, noted:
|Drought Bringing Out Rattlesnakes
Timber rattlesnakes appear to be on the move in this area now, evidently in search of water due to the drought.
Which brings us to how the string of hot, dry summers in the early 1950s changed the face of Alabama. The four-summer stretch from 1951 through 1954 was the hottest four-consecutive-summer period in the 131-year record. It was also a period during which many farmers across Alabama were forced to get out of the farming business, a trend that continued for many years and turned Alabama from an agricultural powerhouse into something very different.
The average high temperature during that four-summer span was a blistering 94.4° F (1951 94.0°, 1952 95.0°, 1953 92.9° and 1954 95.8°). The second worst 4 consecutive summers (that did not include the years 1951 to 1954) was 1899-1902 at a mere 92.8°.
The hottest similar stretch since 1954 was mild by comparison; 91.7° in the summers of 2008 through 2011.
The six coolest summers, all under 88°, have occurred since the first such summer in 1967, with 2013 (last summer) being one of them.
But hot summers are usually also dry summers, and that is what happened in the 1950s. Summer 1954 tied 1902 as the driest summer in 120 years, with only eight inches of rainfall in three months. If we look at NOAA's Palmer drought index, it shows the summers from 1951 through 1957 all in varying degrees of drought. That is the longest unbroken string of drought summers since 1895.
The impact was significant.
The Huntsville Times, Aug. 16, 1954:Farm Situation Near Its Worst
Crops and pastures are nearing their worst conditions of the season, County Agent Loyd H. Little estimated today ...
It has been four weeks since anything like a general rain has fallen in the county. In the last three weeks, only .07 of an inch of rain has fallen at the Huntsville sub-station.
Facing increased competition from farms in western states that benefited from billions of dollars in federally-subsidized irrigation projects and with almost no irrigation to help Alabama farmers deal with the drought, the state's farmland began to go fallow or to be used for other purposes.
Although agriculture (largely poultry) is still the state's largest industry, Alabama lost millions of acres of harvested cropland between 1950 and today, which is a big enough change to quite literally change the face of the state.
Fortunately, this summer to date seems to be neither generally dry nor unusually hot. Let's hope it stays that way.
- John Christy