Southeast Australia feeling the heat Media Brief

Jan 14, 2014 - 12:04pm

As of 10:00 am this morning, the temperature in Melbourne was 34ºC and rising. As predicted by the Bureau of Meteorology, the mercury is unlikely to stop rising until it hits 43ºC. Extremely hot conditions are expected to persist until Saturday morning.

What is happening to Australia’s weather?

2013 was Australia’s hottest year on record, with the hottest summer and the hottest January and the hottest September on record, according to the Bureau.  Not a single part of Australia saw below-average temperatures.

Over the last half-century, hot days and nights have become significantly more common. There are now fewer cold days and nights. Heat waves are becoming more frequent and more intense in Australia, with new maximum temperature records set and re-set every year.

Hot here, cold there

Even in a warming world it can still get very cold, as in the United States last week. The North American cold wave, while awe-inspiring, massively disruptive, and deadly, didn’t prove that global warming is or is not happening. What is important is the long-term trend: winters in the continental US have been getting warmer since 1970.

Globally, there are now many more new hot records than cold ones. In Australia, the number of record-high temperatures exceeded record lows by about five to one.

The continent’s average temperature is now nearly a full degree higher than it was in 1900, in line with global warming. The global temperature has risen at an average rate per decade of about 0.12°C from 1951 to 2012, according to the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Recent work by climate scientists Dr Sophie Lewis and Prof David Karoly at the University of Melbourne shows that the odds recent very hot weather conditions are due entirely to natural variability are 100 to one against.
In other words, scientists can now say with a high degree of certainty that carbon pollution has made the weather hotter than it would otherwise have been left to its own devices.

Keeping safe in a heat wave

The Climate Institute echoes the calls of health authorities for people to take special care of themselves, their families, their neighbours, and their animals.

Heat stress should be taken seriously —complacency can result in serious illness, even death. Heat stress can also lead to serious mental health problems.

Everyone should know the early signs of heat stress, so they can provide assistance. Signs include headache, nausea, dizziness, weakness, irritability, thirst, and heavy sweating. The skin can be cold and clammy. Loss of salt from sweating can produce cramping.  Anyone showing these symptoms should be taken to a cool place, rested and given cold drinks (no alcohol).  Hot dry skin is a dangerous sign.  Confusion can lead to loss of consciousness, seizures and ultimately death.  
Dr Liz Hanna
National Centre for Epidemiology & Population Health
Australian National University

Many ordinary daily activities, such as walking, shopping, cleaning, and exercising can raise the risk of heat-related illness. Medical experts are strongly urging people to minimize exertion wherever possible, reduce exposure, use air-conditioning and fans with moist towels, dress in lightweight clothing that can breathe, and—most importantly—drink plenty of water.
Most at risk in a heat wave are the elderly, the sick, the very young, the socially isolated, and many people with chronic physical and mental conditions. Pets, livestock, and wildlife also suffer in a heat wave, so veterinarians urge people to provide plenty of water and shade.

Hotter weather means more bushfires

Rising temperatures unfortunately create conditions that are more likely to lead to bushfires. Traditionally, January (Tasmania, 2012) and February (Victoria, 2009) are seen major fires.

In the 2009 Victorian Black Saturday bushfires, 173 people lost their lives. In addition, the heat wave that gripped south-east Australia in the weeks prior killed an estimated 374 from heat-related illness. The Royal Commission estimated the economic cost of the fires themselves (not including intangible damage to the social fabric, physical and mental injury) at $4 billion.

The Climate Institute echoes calls from fire authorities to not underestimate the threat of fire to people, animals, and property. Hot, dry, and windy conditions raise the risk of bushfire substantially.
Today, in the south-east, we see extreme fire-weather conditions substantially higher than they were 30 years ago. The fire season itself is starting earlier; extending further into spring, and finishing later, with fewer and fewer opportunities for authorities to conduct hazard-reduction burns.

For more information
Kristina Stefanova | Communications Director, The Climate Institute | 02 8239 6299
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