Australia gets ready for era of 'extreme heat'

Many parts of Australia are experiencing record-breaking temperatures. Changing weather patterns have caused rolling heatwaves and a 14 per cent increase in the annual number of 35-plus degree days over the past 20 years.
Many parts of Australia are experiencing record-breaking temperatures. Changing weather patterns have caused rolling heatwaves and a 14 per cent increase in the annual number of 35-plus degree days over the past 20 years.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Warming trend has prompted push to be 'heat smart', take steps to prevent excessive exposure

In the Australian town of Moree, it comes as little consolation for residents to know that the relentless summer heat they have been enduring has set a new record.

The town, of about 13,000 people, yesterday experienced its 31st consecutive day of temperatures of 35 deg C or higher. The previous longest spell, which occurred in 1981, lasted 17 days.

The mayor, Ms Katrina Humphries, described the weather as "horrible" but said residents were coping. "We move slowly, we keep hydrated," she told The Straits Times (ST). "We are pretty good at finding shady spots."

Australia is officially the world's driest continent, where temperatures are already 8 deg C higher than global averages.

But, many parts of the country are experiencing record-breaking temperatures in what has been called a new era of "extreme heat". The changing weather has caused rolling heatwaves and a 14 per cent increase in the annual number of 35-plus degree days over the past 20 years.

The heat reflects changing climate patterns that are being felt globally and have left each of the past three years as the hottest on record.

In Australia, the warming trend has prompted a push for the nation to become "heat smart" and adopt measures to prevent heat-related deaths.

A group of experts at the Australian National University last week called for Australia to both pursue a reduction in carbon emissions and adopt public health measures to help people avoid the risks of excessive heat exposure.

The experts said that health specialists need to be trained to treat heat illnesses, and workplaces and buildings need to be better prepared. Houses, for instance, should have trees or shady areas to provide relief if air-conditioning fails. Walking and cycling should be encouraged to promote fitness and reduce carbon emissions, but exercise routes should have shade, rest areas with seats and watering stations.

"We'll need to reschedule tasks to avoid or limit exposure, including rest periods, and to ensure adequate hydration with cool fluids," they wrote in an article for The Conversation website.

A senior meteorologist at Australia's Bureau of Meteorology, Mr Craig Burke, told ST that the next seven days of forecasts for Moree were all for temperatures above 35 deg C. Meanwhile, Sydney has set a record for the hottest January nights, with four nights in which the minimum temperature was 24 deg C.

Such record-breaking heatwaves are becoming commonplace in Australia. In some parts of the country, residents have long become accustomed to roads melting under the summer sun and public swimming pools that offer no relief because the water is too warm.

A report in March last year by the Climate Council, a non-government organisation, found that heatwaves have caused more deaths in Australia over the past century - from heat stress or exacerbation of existing heart and kidney conditions - than bush fires, cyclones, floods and severe storms combined.

"Australia is one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change and the number of hot days, warm nights and heatwaves are all projected to increase over the 21st century," said the report.

Several states and territories have adopted specific "heat health plans" to detail how the emergency and health authorities should respond to extreme heatwaves.

The plans include arrangements for updating hospitals, councils and the public on the heat and the risks, as well as ensuring that vulnerable people such as the elderly or hospital patients receive proper care.

The New South Wales government advises people to take precautions such as carrying water, avoiding alcohol and hot and sugary drinks, keeping windows closed and wearing loose-fitting clothing made from natural fibres such as cotton.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 27, 2017, with the headline 'Australia gets ready for era of 'extreme heat''. Print Edition | Subscribe