Remembering 1995 Chicago Heat Wave, Amid High Midwest Temps

midwest heat wave brings to mind the killer chicago temperatures of 1995

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

A Midwestern heat wave is being made worse by power outages. However, the area is no stranger to extreme heat. High temperatures in July 1995 killed over a thousand Chicagoans.

Hot sun shinning in the sky
Heat advisories are issued by the National Weather Service within 12 hours before extremely dangerous heat conditions begin. Photo By Duangdaw / Shutterstock

On Thursday, half of the U.S. population was under a heat advisory affecting many regions of the United States. In the Midwest, the matter was exacerbated by widespread power outages as a result of high winds disturbing power lines, leaving residents without air conditioning or refrigeration. Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin had all reported power outages, with hundreds of thousands at risk of extreme heat.

Amazingly, this isn’t the worst heat wave the Midwest has faced. In July 1995, a temperature spike in Chicago was so severe it killed thousands. In his video series The Science of Extreme Weather, Professor Eric Snodgrass, Director of Undergraduate Studies for the Department of Atmospheric Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, explained the historic heat wave.

The City by the Lake

“Extreme heat is an elusive killer; it targets the very young who need adults to care for them and it also targets the very old,” Professor Snodgrass said. “Chicago saw this firsthand in July of 1995.”

Over the course of five days, temperatures in Chicago soared, often reaching the triple digits. As a child growing up outside the city, I experienced this personally—playing outside with friends, our shoes snapped like chewing gum while we walked on the sidewalk. This was because even the fraction of a second that the soles touched the asphalt was enough to heat the rubber to a point of stickiness.

However, the worst of it, Professor Snodgrass said, happened in the center of the city, where an “urban heat island” caused sweltering temperatures.

“Cities are made of concrete, asphalt, metal, and glass,” he said. “And they have industrial-sized air conditioning units that give off enormous amounts of heat, while cars, trains, and buses heat city streets with hot engines and exhaust. The Sun beats down during the day and tall buildings act like a canyon, focusing the heat downward where it’s absorbed and stored.”

At night, all of this heat gets released into the lowest atmosphere. This is when the urban heat island effect is greatest, causing the inner city to be as much as 15 degrees warmer than surrounding suburbs and open land.

Toll of the Heat and Lessons Learned

Most of the more than 1,000 heat-related deaths in Chicago that fateful month happened in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, where the elderly couldn’t afford air conditioning or didn’t find relief from the heat. Heat stroke, heart attacks, and respiratory inflammation ravaged Chicago’s communities.

“Often, the impact of a heat wave is unknown until the morgue fills up,” Professor Snodgrass said. “Chicago had a heat disaster plan, but most of the city officials were on vacation during the heat wave, and it was not fully utilized. Chicago learned its lesson though.”

In 1999, another heat wave struck, but this time, the Windy City implemented its heat disaster plan several days beforehand. Twenty-four-hour cooling centers were opened in municipal buildings, while air-conditioned bus and train rides on Chicago Transit Authority vehicles were made free. The city also opened call centers where citizens could register the phone numbers of neighbors who they knew were at risk during the heat wave.

“The heat disaster plan was a huge success as heat-related deaths were reduced by 90% compared with the 1995 heat wave,” Professor Snodgrass said.