The famous summer of '76

The greatest drought on record
by Philip Eden

This week marks the 25th anniversary of the greatest heatwave in the record-breaking summer of 1976. It is true that there had been earlier hot spells in early-May and early-June when the temperature reached 30C, but they were short-lived and separated by lengthy cooler intervals. However from June 22 until August 26, a period of nine weeks, the weather was consistently dry, sunny and hot. It should also be remembered that summer 1976 marked the culmination of a prolonged drought which had begun in April 1975.

By April 1976 the drought had become very serious, not only for the water-supply industry but also for agriculture. The topsoil in East Anglia had turned to dust and was being systematically eroded by stiff easterly winds, and farmers warned of poor yield s unless the rains came soon. They didn't. A Drought Bill was rushed through Parliament, water consumption was restricted as reservoirs and aquifers dried out, the parched countryside turned from green to brown and from brown to white as the last vestiges of moisture disappeared, and there were extensive heath and woodland fires in southern England. Finally a Minister for Drought, Mr Dennis Howell, was appointed to co-ordinate water conservation. Within three days it had started raining!

The centrepiece of the summer, meteorologically speaking, was a truly unprecedented heatwave which lasted from June 22 to July 16, a period of 25 consecutive days on each of which the temperature climbed to 27C or more (the 80s F) somewhere of other in th e UK. Even more remarkable, the temperature reached 32C (the 90s F) on every one of the 15 successive days from June 23 to July 7 inclusive. No previous or subsequent heatwave has produced more than five days in a row in the 90s.

Only a minority of workplaces enjoyed air-conditioning in 1976; consequently working conditions were almost impossible. Public transport organisations reported hundreds of passengers suffering from heat exhaustion, and dozens of people collapsed at the Wimbledon tennis championships which took place at the height of the hot weather.