Analysis by PwC Australia in 2011, found that heatwaves kill more Australians than any other natural disasters in the history of the state. Roger Beale and John Tomac reflect on the findings as Australia faces new heat records again.
In a land which is known for its extremes, the current heat wave in Australia has broken all records yet again.
The Australian Bureau of Meteorology reported this week that Monday 7th January broke the average maximum daily temperature record for the country at 40.33°C. The previous record, 40.17°C, was held for 40 years. The daily average maximum temperature this week was 40.11°C. For seven consecutive days, the national average maximum daily temperature exceeded 39°C, almost doubling the previous record of four consecutive days in 1973.
It is another indicator of clear warming trends driving extreme weather. When linked with an exceptionally dry spring across most of southern Australia, the risk of brushfires has risen sharply. This heat wave has followed on two La Niña wet seasons of unusual intensity, leading to severe flooding in Queensland and across vast areas of the Murray Darling river basin, and a build up of vegetation which is providing fuel for the fires.
Australia's Climate Commission has linked the heavy rain associated with these La Nina events with very high sea temperatures off the Australian coast. It’s also consistent with the expected impacts of global warming.
Amidst the extremes of heat, planning ahead can undoubtedly have a real impact in addressing the risks to human health, public infrastructure, and electricity supply for example.
In 2011, prompted by the loss of life and property from record temperatures recorded across southern Australia in 2009, we worked with the Commonwealth Government and the Bureau of Meteorology to model the potential impacts of extreme heat on human life. At the time, Australia had no national heatwave plan.
The report sought to support thinking and planning at national, state and local government level, as well as for citizens themselves. Two years on, the analysis is fresh in our minds as the records break yet again.
Heatwaves are Australia’s silent killer. During the 2009 bushfires in Victoria, South Australia, 173 people perished as a direct result of the bushfires. The events grabbed headlines worldwide. In the same week, 374 people lost their lives to extreme heat.
Climate projections show heat events are expected to occur more often and with greater intensity in the future. In Melbourne, for instance, the number of heatwave days could more than triple by 2050 and the overall heat effect of these events could increase by a factor of five, having even more devastating impacts than those heat events previously experienced. Those who are affected come disproportionately from the vulnerable groups in our community.
The economic and social costs of extreme heat events are significant and potentially avoidable. Changing demographic and climatic trends suggest the impact of these events will increase but an effective framework with low cost strategies can reduce both the risk and cost.
Our analysis examined the experiences of other countries that have experienced extreme weather including experiences from France and Shanghai. Much is being done, but there is much more we can do to make our cities, our homes and businesses, our infrastructure and our citizens more resilient. Early warnings, intelligent use of conventional and social media, emergency services, social and health workers, families and carers will be in a much better position to respond.The ability to analyse and use data like that in our research to predict the likelihood of danger to people in a specific location at a specific time, acts as an early warning system. It will undoubtedly have a real impact on saving lives.