Tourists use an umbrella to protect themselves from the sun while visiting the Acropolis in Athens on July 24, 2022 ( AFP / Louisa GOULIAMAKI)

Record heat in 1954 does not disprove global warming

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Social media posts claim a US heatwave in the summer of 1954 proves global warming is "only an agenda." This is false; temperatures did break records in the Midwest that year, but experts say isolated weather events do not disprove the science of climate change, which has made heatwaves more frequent and intense.

"There was no 'GLOBAL WARMING' or 'CLIMATE CHANGE' agenda in 1954. The current rhetoric is only an agenda about power control and wealth redistribution," says a July 28, 2022 Facebook post, which includes a photo of a newspaper article. "Stories like this are part of the reason they have backed off teaching history in public schools."

Screenshot of a Facebook post taken August 15, 2022

Similar claims have circulated on Twitter here and here. As evidence, the posts cite a July 16, 2022 column in The Joplin Globe, a daily newspaper in Missouri.

"As hot as it is this summer, 1954 was so much worse," the headline says.

But the posts misinterpret the article, which does not mention climate change. And scientists say global warming is making heatwaves more frequent and intense.

"No individual heat wave can prove or disprove global warming," said Maren Hale, a climate researcher at the University of California-San Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

1954 set records in Midwest

In the column shared online, historian Brad Belk of Missouri Southern State University recalled his experience of summer 1954.

Belk is not a scientist and did not express opinions related to climate change. Instead, he mentioned the heatwave's consequences on the local population and infrastructure.

"Whether it is 1954 or 2022, hot is hot," he said in the article. "Fall was a welcome relief in 1954. Autumn 2022 will be greatly appreciated as well."

Data from 1954 confirm the intensity of that summer in the Midwest.

Nancy Westcott, a research climatologist at the Midwestern Regional Climate Center, said in a 2011 study that the year marked "the most recent prolonged and devastating heatwave" for the region. Illinois, for example, set a record temperature of 117 degrees Fahrenheit (47.28 degrees Celsius) on July 14, 1954 in East St. Louis.

However, Westcott told AFP the report "was on a local scale and showed no global data."

"It showed that climate varies regionally and that extremes in weather have always occurred, but shows nothing about what is happening globally," she noted.

Extremes intensifying

All of the 10 warmest years on record have occurred in the 21st century, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) National Centers for Environmental Information. In the 143-year global record, 2022 is ranked sixth warmest for the January-July period.

Hale said that, while variations may exist across regions, "as a whole, the United States is experiencing heat waves more often, and these heat waves are more extreme and last longer than they did 60–70 years ago."

Highlights of a report on the state of the climate by the World Meteorological Organization ( AFP / Gal ROMA, Paz PIZARRO, Jonathan WALTER)

Jessica Neu, an atmospheric researcher at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told AFP that the 1954 heatwave "does not in any way disprove that the warming of the Earth due to greenhouse gas accumulation is accelerating and is the result of human activity."

"You can think of it like a business that has implemented a new strategy to increase sales," Neu said. "The success of that strategy will not be determined by one or two good years or bad years (like the 1954 heat wave), but rather by the long-term average change, or trend, in sales."

The 1954 heatwave was an extreme event, she said, but climate change has "led to increasing frequency, intensity and duration of heatwaves in the US since the 1950s."

Every additional 0.5C of warming causes discernible increases in the intensity and frequency of hot extremes -- including heatwaves, according to the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. More than 700 scientists from 90 different countries put together the report.

AFP has fact-checked other claims about climate change here.