WeatherWhys Blog

Hell Comes to Earth in 1859

Hell Comes to Earth in 1859

The world record high temperature was recorded at El Azizia, Libya on September 13, 1922 when an official weather observation registered 136 degrees Fahrenheit. Not far behind is the highest reading in the US (and western hemisphere) of 134 degrees at Greenland Ranch- Death Valley, California on July 10, 1913. But who would have guessed that the third hottest temperature of all time was near Santa Barbara, California?

A serene setting most of the time, Santa Barbara is a place where the weather remains fairly constant: beautifully pleasant. Oh, there is the May Gray and the June Gloom- low clouds and fog, but skies usually clear out in the afternoon. In fact, Santa Barbara is listed as 4th out of the top ten cities in the US for lack of changeable weather. “Reliably nice” might characterize it. But that wasn’t the case in the summer of 1859.

California had only been a state for 9 years and the country was on the verge of civil war back east. But on Friday June 17, 1859 the looming war would be forgotten in Goleta, just west of Santa Barbara on the California coast. The morning started with mild temperatures and a noticeable lack of traditional morning fog and clouds for that time of year. Winds were out of the northeast. By mid-morning it was unusually hot. The mercury had risen to the upper 80s and then around noon winds picked up out of the north. It quickly hit 100 degrees. Townsfolk were startled by the extremely hot wind coming down from the Santa Ynez Mountains. But they had no idea of what would transpire a short time later.

Around 1 PM strong winds likely gusting over 65 MPH from the northwest blasted the town with thick dust and temperatures near 130 degrees. Suffocating conditions lead the citizenry to consider this might be Judgment Day and the end of the world. It was a time of surreal paranoia as well as disarming fear. Nobody knew what was going on in this usually pastoral coastal region of about 2,500 residents. And it had happened rather suddenly. All semblance of normalcy was suspended as townspeople were agape with wonder while choking on the hot dust. Everyone attempted to escape this blast furnace of nature. The temperature reached its zenith at 2 PM, measured at 133 degrees. It was 130 degrees offshore on a US coastal survey vessel. Nothing like this had ever been experienced by anyone there. And the sights coastal inhabitants witnessed that afternoon would be reported, but not believed by many. Birds falling dead to the ground while in flight. Some birds in their attempt to escape the burning heat would dive into a well, only to drown. Cattle died under the shade of oak trees. Calves and rabbits died while on their feet. 3 PM and 4 PM, still the temperature was 130 degrees with a blinding dust storm. Fruit fell off trees. Vegetation was scorched and ruined. So terrible was the heat and the loud noise and the lack of breathable air, it seemed to be a plague of God. Daniel Hill, owner of Rancho La Goleta, gathered a number of people in an adobe to earnestly pray for it to end. But yet it went on, mercilessly. A dispatch from the Aquajitos Ranch reported a fisherman had rowed back to shore with blisters on his face and arms from the searing heat. The sun and sky could not be seen through the obscuring dust. Finally, by 5 PM the temperature had fallen a bit to 122 degrees with winds still strong but not as forceful as a few hours earlier. Then, at 7 PM the northwest winds ceased and the mercury rapidly fell to 77 degrees. It was over as suddenly as it had begun.

Residents of Santa Barbara were stunned by the unleashed fury of nature, but felt fortunate to simply be alive. They cautiously surveyed the damage in their town- the loss of livestock, horses, pets and other indigenous animals, not to mention the toll taken on their crops. It was an amazing event, unmatched at any time since. Santa Barbara has endured some tremendous natural disasters, including a great earthquake (estimated magnitude 7+) and tsunami in December 1812. But nothing can compare with the shear terror produced by this weather event. In the Santa Barbara Gazette it was referred to as the “Great Simoon”. A Simoon is an Arabian term, meaning “Poison” and is observed in the Sahara desert as an intensely hot dust storm wind. It often destroys everything in its path.

This simoon was what now is commonly called a Sundowner wind. These winds, similar to Santa Ana winds in other parts of southern California, are extreme features of a downslope wind. They are common in Kern County and often bring dusty and warm weather to the south valley ahead of a cold front. It is also the dynamic that causes our “rain shadow” when wet weather is approaching from the west with strong southerly winds around Bakersfield. For Santa Barbara in June 1859, very strong mid level winds were blowing north to south across the Santa Ynez range and a late season cold dry airmass has expanded over the Great Basin and interior California. The already dried air which had come into the foothills of the Sierra by way of a “Mono Wind” (dry northeasterly wind across the Sierra) would be further warmed and dried when forced over the Santa Ynez mountains south into Santa Barbara. It was a singular event. Many other Sundowners have occurred since, typically late in the day (hence its name)- but never of such intensity and renown. The 133-degree high temperature that day was the unofficial high temperature record for the US (only because “official” records weren’t established until 1870 with the founding of what would become the US Weather Bureau). More than 50 years would pass before Death Valley claimed the current title of hottest place in America, and that at a place you might expect it- in a desert below sea level. People still talk about the Great Simoon as if it were a legend or tall tale. But from the account of newspapers, ship logs, government records and many stories handed down from generation to generation- it really happened on an infamous Friday in June 1859.