“. . .and there lies Santa Barbara on its plain, with its amphitheatre of high hills and distant mountains. There is the old white Mission with its belfries, and there the town, with its one-story adobe houses, with here and there a two-story wooden house of later build. . . in the golden sunlight and glorious climate, sheltered by its hills. . .and there roars and tumbles upon the beach the same grand surf of the great Pacific. . .”
-An excerpt from Richard Henry Dana’s maritime travel narrative titled, Twenty-Four Years After (1869).
As the sun slipped above the hills east of town on the morning of June 17, 1859, it revealed another near perfect California day in Santa Barbara. From a cloudless, brilliant blue sky, the brassy ball of fire overhead beating down on the tile-roofed adobes and dusty roads quickly raised the temperature.
As mid-morning passed, so did the 80-degree mark. It was nothing out of the ordinary, but that would soon change. By day’s end, the small town of several thousand people would suffer through what was at the time the hottest temperature ever recorded on Earth.
As morning passed into early afternoon, the heat continued. Then out of nowhere, a blast of superheated air blew over the Santa Ynez Mountains like a blowtorch. The sky was soon darkened by a massive dust cloud kicked up by the blistering wind. Not long after, the heat “began taking a terrible toll of the beasts in the field,” the late Santa Barbara historian Walker Tompkins wrote, “leaving the buzzards a feast of calves, rabbits, field mice and even full-grown cattle who perished under the oak trees where they had sought respite from the punishing heat.”
By 2 p.m., the temperature had rocketed to an unbelievable 133 degrees!
People fled to the Old Mission and Our Lady of Sorrows Church in sheer terror, thinking the end of the world was at hand. Others took to their adobes desperately seeking refuge behind the earthen insulation of mud walls.
A decade later, the phenomenon was included in an official government report by the United States Coast Survey titled “Coast Pilot of California, Oregon, and Washington Territory.” The survey crew happened to be on a vessel at sea in the Channel at the time of the heat wave, and were it not for them, an official record would not exist.
“All the residents betook themselves to their dwellings and carefully closed every door and window,” wrote George Davidson in the report. “No human being could withstand such heat out of doors.” A fishermen, having suffered through an afternoon at sea in an open boat, returned literally scorched, his arms covered in blisters.
Home gardens and commercial crops along the typically cool littoral plain withered before the sweltering bluster of biblical proportions. “The fruit fell to the ground, burned on the windward side,” the survey report recorded. An entire grape crop baked on the vine in the Goleta Valley. Birds fell out of the sky in mid-flight, their carcasses scattered over the land along with numerous other animals that had expired. Others were found drowned in the bottoms of wells where they had tried to escape the heat. “We had a good deal of trouble cleaning out the wells,” one lady later recounted.
Then just as mysteriously as the wind emerged, it died. The temperature fell slightly to 122 degrees by around 5 p.m. and finally down to 77 degrees as the sun set.
Santa Barbara’s world record remained for 75 years, until it was beat by a single degree by weather in the Mojave Desert recorded at Death Valley. Nine years after that, in 1922, a heat wave of 136 degrees was recorded in the Saharan Desert of Libya, which remains the hottest temperature yet documented.
To this day, the simoom that seared Santa Barbara in 1859 with 133-degree heat remains the third-hottest temperature ever recorded on Earth. There exists no comparable event in meteorological history or known Native American folklore.
Photo credit: USC Digital Archive and the California Historical Society.
- UPDATE: An article posted by the geology department at UCSB dismisses the afternoon heat wave of 1859 saying there is “a strong case for discounting this one.” October 04, 2010 – Goleta’s “Great Simoon” of 1859