The Great Heat Wave of 2021

By Gordon Fulks, Ph.D.

Because the global temperature has been very close to normal for several months, most people will wonder about a “Great Heat Wave,” except those who live in the Pacific Northwest.

At the end of June, Western Oregon and Washington experienced one of the most extreme heat waves ever observed.  For three days, temperatures rose to all-time record highs, similar to those seen routinely in Death Valley, California but ten degrees Fahrenheit above long-standing records in the Northwest.  Then after the third and most extreme day of heat on Monday June 28, 2021, temperatures plummeted an amazing 50 degrees F back to seasonal levels over a matter of hours.


The usual suspects who have been selling climate alarm for many years, instantly faulted ‘Global Warming.’  That is an all-purpose explanation that appeals to those without scientific knowledge.  Linking automobile exhaust to climate extremes has been popular in recent years, because it is so simple and politically convenient.  But it has notable problems, not the least of which is a complete absence of “Global” in regional heat waves.  Hot it was, but “Global” it was not.

Also, the string of inferences, from carbon dioxide in automobile exhaust to observable warming is tenuous at best.  You have to believe in Global Warming, because scientific proof is substantially missing.

Such details are lost on our Scientist-in-Chief Joe Biden. The Associated Press quoted the President as saying during a speech in Wisconsin:

“Anybody ever believe you’d turn on the news and see it’s 116 degrees in Portland, Oregon? 116 degrees,” the president said, working in a dig at those who cast doubt on … climate change. “But don’t worry — there is no global warming because it’s just a figment of our imaginations.”

Sorry Mr. President, this subject is much more complex than you can imagine.  Slight warming from carbon dioxide cannot spontaneously amplify into a massive heat wave.  That would violate the Laws of Thermodynamics, known to scientists since a 27-year-old mechanical engineer in the French army, Nicolas Léonard Sadi Carnot,  first developed them in 1824.

For those who prefer to get their science from scientists, not politicians, a very simple explanation comes from the old adage to pay attention to which direction the wind is blowing.  Along the West Coast, those who live in close proximity to the Pacific Ocean enjoy a climate with natural air conditioning in the summer and natural heating in the winter.  Those who live further inland suffer the seasonal extremes of a ‘continental climate.’  As long as the wind is blowing onshore, which is typical, the ocean provides remarkable climate moderation for some distance inland.  But certain weather patterns drive a reverse flow that delivers the continental climate to coastal regions.  That produced the ‘Mother of All Heat Waves’ for a few days in the Pacific Northwest at the end of June this year.

When a dome of high pressure sets up over the interior West, heat builds up, because cooler arctic air is blocked.  With a high Sun angle in June, that heat accumulates rapidly.  It flows out where possible on an east wind through the Columbia River Gorge or over the Cascade Mountains in the Northwest, out on “Santa Ana” winds in Southern California, or out on “Sundowner” winds in Santa Barbara.  As the hot winds blow down from the higher elevations to the east, they heat further, sometimes producing remarkably hot conditions in areas that are accustomed to a mild climate.


One spectacular such incident occurred along the South Coast near Santa Barbara, California in 1859.  George Davidson of the United States Coast Survey, who became the first Professor of Geography at the University of California, Berkeley provided this published account in 1869:

The only instance of the simoom [strong, hot, desert wind] on this coast, mentioned either in its history or traditions, was that occurring at Santa Barbara, on Friday, the 17th of June, 1859. The temperature during the morning was between 75° and 80°, and, gradually and regularly increased until about one o’clock p. m., when a blast of hot air from the northwest swept suddenly over the town and struck the inhabitants with terror. It was quickly followed by others. At two o’clock the thermometer exposed to the air rose to 133°, and continued at or near that point for nearly three hours, whilst the burning wind raised dense clouds of impalpable dust. No human being could withstand the heat. All betook themselves to their dwelling and carefully closed every door and window. The thick adobe walls would have required days to have become warmed, and were consequently an admirable protection. Calves, rabbits, birds, &c., were killed; trees were blighted; fruit was blasted and fell to the ground, burned only on one side; and gardens were ruined. At five o’clock the thermometer fell to 122°, and at seven it stood at 77°. A fisherman, in the channel in an open boat, came back with his arms badly blistered.

Many suspect that the high of 133 F, reported by Davidson, is impossible for the climate system in the Santa Barbara area.  Yet for over a half century that measurement stood as the hottest temperature ever measured in the USA.  It was eclipsed by a measurement of 134 F in Death Valley on July 10, 1913. 

Most believe that the incident occurred, because modern versions of a simoom (or Sundowner, as the locals call it) have occurred in recent times.  I lived through one that produced a 109 F hot air blast in 1990.  It was so out-of-character for the placid climate along the South Coast that those who were there will never forget it.

In the dry interior West, heat waves are hardly unusual.  Phoenix, Palm Springs, Las Vegas, Sacramento, and Pendleton have very hot summers.  During the California Gold Rush era in the mid 1800s, the unrelenting heat in Sacramento motivated one enterprising young man to ship ice all the way from Boston to Sacramento in sailing ships that braved the Strait of Magellan at the tip of South America.  They packed blocks of ice, cut from frozen lakes during the New England winter, in sawdust to keep it from melting.

Until the Great Heat Wave of 2021, Pendleton, Oregon held the record high temperature for the entire Pacific Northwest at 119 F.  That occurred on the 10th of August 1898, long before a President was superstitious about Global Warming.  Because former Washington State Climatologist Mark Albright has demonstrated that the reading of 119 F was probably 117 F, based on nearby records, we should declare the present heat wave the equivalent of the old record. Similar temperatures were observed at many locations in the Pendleton area this time.


With journalist Jason Samenow hawking Global Warming for the Washington Post as part of a story about a new record high temperature in Canada, it is important to remember that Canadians have suffered grievously from heat waves in the past.  “It was like we were living in a furnace,” one Toronto resident commented.  He was referring to the deadliest heat wave in Canada that killed 1,100 people in 1936.


By all means, tell your grandchildren how you survived the Great Heat Wave of 2021!  Also, remind them that such very unusual events have occurred before, perhaps long before they were born.  That may keep politicians from selling superstitions about carbon dioxide (the gas of life) or other nonsense.  We do not need to sacrifice virgins or our industrial economy to appease the climate gods.

Our climate is doing what it has always done.  Large excursions from normal are perfectly normal.

Figure 1.  President Joe Biden. (Source: U.S. Government)
Figure 2.  Mechanical engineer for the French Army Nicolas Léonard Sadi Carnot (1796-1832).  At the age of 27, he developed the Laws of Thermodynamics. 
(Source: Wikipedia)
Figure 3.  University of California Professor of Geography George Davidson (1825-1911).  Davidson was President of the California Academy of Sciences and one of the charter members of the Sierra Club.  (Source: Wikipedia – United States Public Domain)
Figure 4.  Newspaper article about the heat wave in Toronto, Canada July 5-17, 1936.  41 Celsius is 106 Fahrenheit.  (Source: Lecture to the Chinese Academy of Sciences by Environment Canada Meteorologist Madhav Khandekar, PhD)

Gordon J. Fulks lives in Corbett, Oregon. He is one of the Directors of the CO2 Coalition and holds a doctorate in physics from the University of Chicago’s Laboratory for Astrophysics and Space Research.


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