“Faking your temperature” (Santa Barbara simoom)


Legend has it that on June 17, 1859, Santa Barbara had a most unwelcome visitor, namely a sudden scorching wind that was unprecedented in heat and consequences. Animals were slain, people were injured, and crops ruined, all in three hours. 

As described, the phenomenon seemed more worthy of Venus than Earth and was referred to as a simoom, that being the Arabic word for “a sudden, hot wind filled with sand.” Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning researched the tale and while delving into newspaper archives, found that the term was relatively common in the 19th Century. Maybe it’s one we should bring back, along with gullyfluff (assorted stuff in boys’ pockets) or hobbadehoy (roughly equitable to tween).

To be sure, hot, sudden winds are a reality on California coasts. The Santa Ana winds and their lesser-known cousin, the Sundowner – which frequent Santa Barbara – contribute to wildfires in the region. Dunning described the winds as extraordinarily dry and with gusts that rival a hurricane’s. He added, “The wind is usually hot since it gets heated on the way by adiabatic forces.” I’ll have to admit, that adjective was a new one for me. It had me scurrying to an online dictionary, where I learned it refers to a process or condition in which heat does not enter or leave the system.

Most sources for this tale cite a 1966 book entitled Goleta, the Good Land. The author, Walker Tompkins, apparently used only one source, which had been written nearly a century before and which was penned 10 years after this supposed extreme and localized heat wave. That source was a work published by the United States Coast Survey. Geography professor George Davidson served as an assistant surveyor on that trip, and contributed this passage: 

“At about 1 p.m., a blast of hot air from the northwest swept suddenly over the town and struck the inhabitants with terror. It was quickly followed by others. At 2 p.m. the thermometer exposed to the air rose to 133°, and continued at or near that point for nearly three hours, whilst the burning wind raised dense clouds of impalpable dust. No human being could withstand the heat. All betook themselves to their dwelling and carefully closed every door and window. Calves, rabbits, and birds were killed; trees were blighted; fruit was blasted and fell to the ground, burned only on one side; and gardens were ruined. A fisherman, in the channel in an open boat, came back with his arms badly blistered.”

Of note, Davidson at no point ever claimed to have made these observations himself. Nor has anyone else, it seems. UC-Santa Barbara’s Bill Norrington asked fellow geography professor Joel Michaelsen what he thought about Tompkins’ version of the tale, and was told, “I never found any outside source to validate Tompkins’ story, and I am highly skeptical of its veracity. I don’t doubt that strong hot, dry downslope winds could kick up lots of dust and produce very high temperatures – but 110°F – 115° at most. The 133° just isn’t physically reasonable, as it would require the creation of an extremely hot air mass somewhere to the northeast. And given Tompkins’ well-known tendency to mix liberal doses of fiction into his ‘histories,’ and I think you have a strong case for discounting this one.”

Indeed, Tompkins’ version includes such improbable specifics as birds falling dead from the sky. As to the supposed super-scorching temperatures, those are supported by no official measurement. 

It has plenty of company in that regard. Meteorologist Christopher Burt compiled a list of claimed extreme temperatures and rated them from 0 to 10 for veracity. He found little substantiation for figures like 136 degrees (1920s in Libya) or 134 (1930s in Death Valley). As to the supposed simoom, Burt bestowed but a single point on its likelihood. 

He wrote, “There is no record of who made this measurement or exactly where it was made in Santa Barbara. Some later sources say it was made on a U.S. coastal geo-survey vessel. IF that is the case then the temperature is not possible since the waters off Santa Barbara in June are never warmer than about 70°F and any wind blowing over the ocean would have its temperature modified by the cool water.”

No researcher has ever uncovered evidence of the event and no meteorologist, journalist, or scientist at the time considered it exceptional enough to make note of until 10 years later. Given what we know meteorology and considering the conspicuous lack of documentation, the 1859 simoom seems more hot air than hot wind.

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