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Date: 14 December 2010 

Facing a future of heatwaves: study

With Australia facing its third wettest year on record and the world on track to be the hottest year in a decade, extreme weather conditions are set to continue, according to a study led by Queensland University of Technology (QUT).

In fact, Australians are being warned to brace for more killer hot weather in the future with a study of the 2009 southern heatwave giving other states an insight into how to cope with the lethal effects of climate change.

QUT researcher Jim Reeves led a joint research project to investigate the impact and response to the 2009 Melbourne and Adelaide heatwaves, which killed more than 400 people in just two weeks.

Mr Reeves, the general manager of QUT's Institute for Sustainable Resources, said the unprecedented hot weather experienced in South Eastern Australia between January 27 and February 8, 2009 found many of the emergency response services in Melbourne and Adelaide were underprepared and relied on reactive solutions to the emerging threats caused by the heat.

"The overall impacts on human health are evident from the dramatic increase in mortality and morbidity," he said.

"In Melbourne there were 374 excess deaths, or deaths above what would be expected for the period of the event, and in Adelaide estimates range from 50 to 150, with more than 3000 reports of heat-related illness.

"When considered in light of the Black Saturday bushfires which killed 173, the 400-plus deaths linked to heatwaves are horrifying."

Mr Reeves said the hot conditions led to crippling transport and power failures which threatened to bring both cities to a halt.

"Extreme heat affects electricity generation and distribution infrastructure and transport infrastructure in all states and there are many examples where hot weather has resulted in power failure and the cancellation of trains," he said.

"The extreme heat resulted in air conditioners failing, which also forced trains to be taken out of service."

Mr Reeves said the southern heatwave, which produced exceptional and prolonged heat exposure, was a major and severe event by both Australian and international standards.

"Climate change over the next 30 to 60 years will make such events more likely and test the resilience of our expanding cities unless forewarning and adaptation strategies are successful," Mr Reeves said.

He said with the CSIRO predicting the number of days with maximum temperatures over 35 degrees to increase by 25 per cent by 2030 and double by 2070, it was essential to develop comprehensive heatwave planning policies and build cities to cope with the changing climate.

"Based on the impacts and experiences of the 2009 event, both Victoria and South Australia have improved their planning policies and adopted strategies to deal with heatwaves," he said.

"One aspect of this planning has led to clearer threshold temperatures for activating and escalating co-ordinated responses in the lead up to and during a heatwave, such as issuing heatwave alerts and for declaration of an actual heatwave emergency."

He said other states including Queensland were also developing improved emergency response systems.

But Mr Reeves said fundamental shifts in thinking were needed to acknowledge the new and uncertain risks associated with climate change.

"We are building our cities as if it is business as usual, with a growing reliance on air conditioning. We are ignoring such issues as heat island effect and how large buildings act as heat banks and not only absorb and radiate heat but also reduce airflow," he said.

Mr Reeves said one of the big issues was for government, communities and individuals to recognise the lethal consequences of heatwaves.

"Unfortunately it is not easy to picture a heatwave and therefore it is often seen as a passive crisis, but its impacts are deadly," he said.

"For many people in the community, living in a warm country such as Australia does not create the sense that excessive heat can be, and is, a threat. Hot weather is generally more welcomed and celebrated than avoided.

"Public education campaigns that promote the dangers of heatwaves, similar to those related to sun protection, must be developed."

The study was supported by the Commonwealth Government and funded by the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility.

Media contacts:
Sandra Hutchinson, QUT Media Officer, 07 3138 2999 or s3.hutchinson@qut.edu.au
Ian Eckersley, QUT Media Manager, 07 3138 2361 or ian.eckersley@qut.edu.au
**High resolution photos of Jim Reeves are available for media use

 

Jim Reeves