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The 2014 Farmers Almanac
Farmers' Almanac

What Was the Weather Like Back Then?

What Was the Weather Like Back Then?

Two thousand and fourteen marks the 75th anniversary of the dawn of television. In fact, RCA introduced it to the American public on April 30th when it broadcast the opening of the 1939 New York World’s Fair. But critics said it wouldn’t last!

“The problem with television is that people must sit and keep their eyes glued on a screen; the average American family hasn’t time for it,” wrote The New York Times that same year.

But how different was our climate 75 years ago than it is today? With 2014 now famously in the weather annals as one of the coldest winters (a combination of below average temperatures and duration of the cold) on record, and the debate about and repercussions of climate change dripping from every other headline today, what did we experience back then? How did we cope without the ubiquitous use of air conditioning and often central heating, and did our climate really warrant them? In a pre-climate change world, just how different was the weather then than it is today?

According to history, and in many ways like our most recent winter, the winter of 1939-40 was the coldest on record in 45 years — or some records say in more than 100 years. The latter half of December experienced an anticyclone (large scale circulation of winds around a central region of high atmospheric pressure), with resulting frost and fog, producing what some weather pundits have called another Little Ice Age in Northern Europe — similar to the more recognized one that lasted from the 16th to 19th centuries.

Easily the most catastrophic climate conditions in the U.S. in the 1930s produced the infamous Dust Bowl, which is reported to have impacted 19 states. Research reveals that unstable sea surface temperatures — cooler than normal Pacific Ocean temperatures and warmer than normal tropical Atlantic Ocean temperatures, creating shifts in weather patterns — resulted in arid air and high temperatures in the Midwest. Severe, sustained dust storms and drought, also due to overfarmed and overgrazed land, caused the loss of many millions of dollars’ worth of crops. Reportedly 400,000 people were displaced: forced to leave their homes and become migrant workers as they battled starvation.

During hurricane season (June 12 to November 7, 1939), six tropical storms struck the eastern U.S. and outlying areas including Jamaica, northeast of Puerto Rico, and Cuba, one becoming extratropical when it impacted Newfoundland. Two of these became actual hurricanes. Interestingly, another tropical storm — the 1939 Long Beach Tropical Storm, aka El Cordonazo/The Lash of St. Francis — was the only one to make landfall in California in the 20th century. Resulting floods killed 45 individuals in southern California, with 48 more killed at sea.

Though people faced their share of climate challenges, it didn’t prevent them from flocking to the August 25th premiere of “The Wizard of Oz” and, just in time for the holidays, on December 15th “Gone with the Wind” held its sparkling, star-studded premiere — both also celebrating their diamond anniversaries this year.


1 Janet { 04.24.14 at 12:05 am }

That is so true, Tom.

2 Tom { 04.23.14 at 12:55 pm }

The more thing’s change, the more they stay the same.

3 John slape { 04.23.14 at 10:46 am }

I’ve always known that the weather was just as extreme back then, used to listen to my elders talk about how bad or how much snow they had when they were kids and I,m 72. Don’t believe it’s changed much and you gotta remember they dealt with it with none of the convenices that we have.

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