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The U.S. just had its hottest summer on record

This summer beat the record set by the Dust Bowl summer of 1936, when huge parts of the West and the Great Plains were parched by severe drought.
Image: A young boy cools down in a waterfall at Yards Park in Washington on Aug. 12, 2021, as a heat wave hit the region.
A young boy cools down in a waterfall at Yards Park in Washington on Aug. 12 as a heat wave hits the region.Olivier Douliery / AFP - Getty Images

The United States had its hottest summer on record this year, narrowly edging out the previous milestone that was set 85 years ago during the Dust Bowl.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced Thursday that the average temperature this summer for the contiguous U.S. was 74 degrees Fahrenheit, or 2.6 degrees warmer than the long-term average. The heat record caps off a season full of extremes, with parts of the country experiencing persistent drought, wildfires, record-breaking heat waves, hurricanes and other extreme weather exacerbated by climate change.

This summer beat the previous record set in 1936 by a hair, coming in at less than 0.01 degrees warmer than during the Dust Bowl year, when huge portions of the West and Great Plains were parched by severe drought.

Though this year's summer was technically hotter than 1936, the very small gap puts the two years "neck and neck," in what NOAA called a "virtual tie."

NOAA's report spans "meteorological summer," which covers June, July and August. During that time, 18.4 percent of the country experienced record-high temperatures, including five states — California, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon and Utah — that had their warmest summers in recorded history, according to the agency.

"Sixteen additional states had a top-five warmest summer on record. No state ranked below average for the summer season," NOAA officials wrote in the climate report.

In June, the Pacific Northwest suffered through a heat wave that shattered all-time temperature records in Seattle and Portland, Oregon. More than 35 cities in the western U.S. tied or set heat records during the multiday heat wave, where temperatures soared to up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit in some places.

Global warming is making heat waves and other extreme weather events both more likely and more severe, and climate scientists have said conditions this summer offer a glimpse of what could become more common in the future.

NOAA's report highlighted other extreme events that plagued the country in August, including devastating floods from Tropical Storm Fred, which hit western North Carolina; Tropical Storm Henri, which soaked parts of the Northeast; and flash flooding that killed at least 22 people in Tennessee.

Hurricane Ida, which battered Louisiana and left a trail of destruction from the Gulf Coast into the Northeast, also drenched huge swaths of the country from late August into September.

"With 35 fatalities accounted for during August, it was the deadliest month for flooding across the U.S. since Hurricane Harvey in 2017," NOAA officials wrote in the report.

Dry conditions in the Western U.S. have also fueled a catastrophic wildfire season. In California, the Dixie Fire became the second largest in the state's history, while the Caldor Fire forced thousands to flee from South Lake Tahoe in late August.