Spanish climate deniers use past heat records to sow doubt online

With Europe gripped by successive heatwaves, climate-change deniers are spreading scepticism by publishing data on social media on extreme temperatures allegedly recorded decades ago to imply scientists are exaggerating global warming.

Spanish climate deniers use past heat records to sow doubt online
Photo: Pixabay.

But experts say the figures cited from the past are often incorrect or taken out of context — and even if accurate do not change the fact that heatwaves are becoming more frequent and intense.

The posts typically include heat records from almanacs or newspaper reports from the past, arguing that they are similar to the record highs set during this year’s heatwaves in Europe.

One post that has gone viral on Facebook includes a screen grab of a brief article published in the New York Times on June 23, 1935, which said the mercury had hit 127 degrees Fahrenheit (52.7 degrees Celsius) in Zaragoza, in
northeastern Spain, the day before.

That temperature is much higher than the record for the highest temperature in Spain of 47.6 degrees Celsius recorded on August 14, 2021 by national weather office Aemet at the La Rambla meteorological station in the southern province of Cordoba.

Contacted by AFP Fact Check, Aemet spokesman Ruben del Campo said the highest temperature recorded in Zaragoza that day in 1935 was just 39 degrees Celsius.

“The figure of over 52 degrees in incorrect. It is not a figure that is in our climate database, and in fact, there is no log of a temperature above 50 degrees Celsius,” he said. And “even if the figure was correct, which I stress it is not, that is not proof that climate changes does not exist”, he added.

‘Warmer now’ 

Spanish daily newspaper La Vanguardia in 1935 also reported that temperatures had hit the low 50s in Zaragoza but explained that the measurement was taken “in the sun”.

Scientists recommend a series of strict criteria to ensure an accurate temperature reading.

“Sensors must be protected from the sun and the rain, and the temperature inside the weather station must be the same as what it is outside,” said Aemet meteorologists Ricardo Torrijo.

Another post that has gone viral on Facebook, Telegram and Twitter since last June shows a front page of Spanish weekly magazine El Espanol from August 1957 with the headline: “The hottest summer of the century”.

It referred to a reading of a temperature of 50 degrees Celsius in central Spain, which was also taken in the sun.

Isabel Cacho, a climate expert at the University of Barcelona, said that “in the hypothetical case” that the mercury soared above 50 degrees Celsius, “this would not be an argument to question that it is warmer now”.

‘Not change trend’ 

Climate scientists overwhelmingly agree that carbon emissions from humans burning fossil fuels are heating the planet, raising the risk, length and severity of heatwaves and other extreme weather events.

“These figures of high temperatures (in the past) do not discredit the existence of climate change,” said Jose Luis Garcia, a climate change expert at Greenpeace in Spain.

“They are unrelated. One thing is one-off temperature data and another very different thing is the tendency towards an increase in the average temperature.”

Pedro Zorrilla, a Spanish expert in climate change, said the “anomaly” of a very high temperature recorded in 1935 would have a “very small effect” on average temperatures. “It does not change the trend,” he added.

Records show heatwaves are occurring with greater frequency in the Iberian Peninsula, said Mariano Barriendos, a geography and history professor at the University of Barcelona.

“It is relatively usual for a hot air mass to enter the peninsula from the Sahara Desert. What is worrying is that heatwaves are happening more often,” he said.

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How heatwaves have battered Spain’s mussel harvests

"There's nothing left here," sighs Javier Franch as he shakes the heavy rope of mussels he's just pulled to the surface in northeastern Spain. They are all dead.

How heatwaves have battered Spain's mussel harvests

With the country hit by a long and brutal heatwave this summer, the water temperature in the Ebro Delta, the main mussels production area of the Spanish Mediterranean, is touching 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit).

And any grower who hasn’t removed their molluscs in time will have lost everything.

But that’s not the worst of it: most of next year’s crop has also died in one of the most intense marine heatwaves in the Spanish Mediterranean.

By the end of July, experts said the western Mediterranean was experiencing an “exceptional” marine heatwave, with persistently hotter-than-normal temperatures posing a threat to the entire marine ecosystem.

“The high temperatures have cut short the season,” says Franch, 46, who has spent almost three decades working for the firm founded by his father, which has seen production fall by a quarter this year.

The relentless sun has heated up the mix of fresh and saltwater along Catalonia’s delicate coastal wetlands where the River Ebro flows into the Mediterranean.

On a scorching summer morning in Deltebre, one of the municipalities of the Delta, the mussel rafts — long wooden structures with ropes attached which can each grow up to 20 kilograms (44 pounds) of mussels — should be teeming with workers hurrying around during the busy season.

But there is hardly any movement.

“We lost the yield that was left, which wasn’t much, because we were working to get ahead so we wouldn’t go through this,” explains Carles Fernandez, who advises the Ebro Delta’s Federation of Mollusc Producers (Fepromodel).

“But the problem is that we’ve lost the young stock for next year and we’ll have quite a high cost overrun.”

Fishermen extract Pacific oysters bunches in a farm structure on the open sea off the coast near Deltebre, south of Tarragona, on August 10th, 2022. (Photo by Pau BARRENA / AFP)

Millions in losses

The heat has wiped out 150 tonnes of commercial mussels and 1,000 tonnes of young stock in the Delta, initial estimates suggest.

And producers are calculating their losses at over one million euros ($1,000,000) given they will now have to buy young molluscs from Italy or Greece for next year.

“When you have a week when temperatures are higher than 28C, there can be some mortality, but this summer it has lasted almost a month and a half,” with peak temperatures of almost 31C, says Fepromodel head Gerardo Bonet.

Normally, the Ebro Delta’s two bays produce around 3,500 tonnes of mussels, and 800 tonnes of oysters, making Catalonia Spain’s second-largest producer, although it remains far behind the output of Galicia, the northwestern region on the colder Atlantic coast.

For years now, the harvest in the Delta has been brought forward, cutting short a season that once ran from April to August.

‘Tropical’ Mediterranean

Hit by coastal erosion and a lack of sediment supply, the rich ecosystem of the Ebro Delta — a biosphere reserve and one of the most important wetlands of the western Mediterranean — is particularly vulnerable to climate change.

And this extreme summer, when Spain endured 42 days of heatwave — a record three times the average over the past decade, the AEMET national forecaster says — has also left its mark below the surface of the water.

“Some marine populations which are unable to cope with temperatures as high as these over a long period of time are going to suffer what we call mass mortality,” says marine biologist Emma Cebrian of the Spanish National Research Council (CISC).

Spanish Mediterranean mussel producer Javier Franch shows dead Mediterranean mussel seeds in a farm structure on the open sea off the coast near Deltebre, south of Tarragona. (Photo by Pau BARRENA / AFP)

“Imagine a forest, it’s like 60 or 80 percent of the trees dying, with the resulting impact on its associated biodiversity,” she says.

The succession of heatwaves on land has generated another at sea which — pending analysis of all the data in November — may turn out to be “the worst” in this area of the Mediterranean since records began in the 1980s.

Although marine heatwaves are not a new phenomenon, they are becoming more extreme with increasingly dire consequences.

“If we compare it with a wildfire, one can have an impact, but if you keep having them, it will probably mean the affected populations are not able to recuperate,” Cebrian said.

Experts say the Mediterranean is becoming “tropicalised”, and mollusc grower Franch is struck by the mounting evidence as his boat glides between empty mussel rafts in a bay without a breath of wind.

He is mulling an increase in his production of oysters, which are more resistant to high temperatures, but which currently represent just 10 percent of his output.

But he hopes it will help ensure his future in a sector that employs 800 people directly or indirectly in the Ebro Delta.

“(The sector) is under threat because climate change is a reality and what we are seeing now will happen again,” he says worriedly.