The Worst Heat Waves in History

As weather patterns fluctuate across the globe, humanity is at risk of prolonged heat waves and droughts. Temperatures are climbing, and the last few years have seen record breaking temperatures that are the highest in human history. However, historically, there have always been heat waves around the world that are marked by unseasonably high temperatures that have led to deaths and economic devastation. Here, you'll find a list of the deadliest heat waves on record. 

Heat waves aren't just uncomfortable. They can be extremely deadly given the right circumstances. People killed during heat waves often die of thirst via dehydration or succumb to heat-related disease like heat stroke. The elderly are usually at the highest risk of succumbing to brutal heat, but thousands of people from all walks of life have been killed as a result of high temperatures. As the risk of these disasters increases, it's important to look at the worst heat waves in history to learn how to protect yourself in the event of unusually high heat. More heat waves are coming, and they will affect places all over the world. 


  • 2003 European Heat Wave

    Date: July 20 - August 20, 2003
    Highest Temperature: 104 °F
    Deaths: 70,000+

    The summer of 2003 was Europe's hottest since 1540, nearly 500 years ago. Tens of thousands succumbed to the heat across multiple nations due to scorching temperatures. France had a particularly high death toll, with estimates putting the dead at around 14,000. Daytime temperatures were punishing, and scarcely cooled even at night. One of the largest killers during the heat wave was stagnant air that accumulated pollutants and other toxins due to lack of circulation. Heat stroke and dehydration were also powerful killers, especially for older citizens.

    The heat wave cost the continent billions in lost crops and other damages. There is some disagreement as to why this particular heat wave was so devastating, but many experts lay the blame on global climate change. 

  • 2010 Russia Heat Wave

    Date: July - August, 2010
    Highest Temperature: >100 °F
    Deaths: 56,000

    In 2010, Russia experienced the most extreme heat wave in more than a century. Temperatures exceeded 100 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the summer, which is exceedingly rare in Russia. The heat wave wreaked havoc on the nation, including destroying a large amount of the country's agricultural stock. Wildfires were also a massive problem, and smoke inhalation was a major factor in the massive death toll. Scientists predict that, as global temperatures rise, northern countries like Russia will be at a far greater risk of heat waves and wildfires than at any other point in recorded history. However, studies indicate the 2010 heat wave itself was likely due to natural variability rather than human-caused climate change. 

  • 1901 Eastern United States Heat Wave
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    1901 Eastern United States Heat Wave

    Date: June - July, 1901
    Highest Temperature: 109 °F
    Deaths: 9,500

    Before the infamous Dust Bowl of the 1930s, this heat wave was considered the deadliest in US history. The entire eastern half of the country was affected, from St. Louis to New York City. Conditions in New York became so hot that the city's horses collapsed and died in massive numbers, with the lives of 250 horses being claimed within a few days. In the aftermath of the two month heat wave, nearly 10,000 people lost their lives. More Americans died during this heat wave than any other in the country's history. 

  • 1988 North American Drought

    Date: Summer of 1988
    Highest Temperature: Unknown
    Deaths: 5,000 to 10,000

    The 1988 North American drought was one of the worst weather disasters in North American history. The drought was prolonged and lasted throughout the summer of 1988 with unseasonably high temperatures breaking out in different places and at different times. This made it extremely difficult to figure out the exact origin of the high heat and low rainfall. Some theories attribute the drought to dense air in the upper atmosphere as well as early effects of climate change. 

    The drought was marked by weeks on end of temperatures reaching close to 100 degrees. It is unclear how many heat-related deaths could be attributed to the heat wave alone and not other factors, but thousands likely lost their lives due to excessive heat. In addition to the loss of life, power grids shut down frequently, causing outages.