Melbourne and Adelaide have been Australia’s most vulnerable major cities to killer heatwaves


Thomas Longden, University of Technology Sydney

Melbourne and Adelaide have been most prone to deadly heatwave conditions among Australia’s five largest cities, according to my new research published in Climatic Change.

My study shows that between 2001 and 2015, Melbourne and Adelaide suffered the most exposure to temperatures beyond a crucial threshold of 7.26℃ above the average. Above this threshold, deaths are more likely because people are not acclimatised to the extreme weather.

I estimated that there were 151 deaths in Melbourne and 144 in Adelaide due to extreme heatwaves – those above this 7.26℃ threshold – between 2001 and 2015.

Heatwaves can cause significant numbers of deaths, especially among vulnerable groups of people who are not prepared for or acclimatised to extreme hot temperatures.

Even though Melbourne and Adelaide are located in more temperate areas (in comparison with more northerly cities such as Brisbane), they have been periodically hit by severe heatwaves.




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In my research, I looked at the “Excess Heat Factor”, a measure used by the Bureau of Meteorology as part of its heatwave forecasts. It is the difference between the 3-day average temperature and the 30-day average, and is therefore a measure of how “unusually hot” it is during a heatwave. It captures how much residents are likely to struggle to cope with the heat.

The graphs below show the frequency of excessively hot or cold weather for each of Australia’s major cities from 2001 to 2015. These charts show that most days had temperatures where the 3-day average was 2℃ higher or lower than the 30-day average.

A grey dashed line shows the extreme heat threshold that my study found was associated with higher deaths, relative to moderately warm and cool days.
I then estimated the threshold at which there is a significantly increased risk of deaths.

The death rate (per 100,000 people) that coincides with the extreme heat acclimatisation measure is shown as a black line on each of the graphs. This is an average impact of temperature on death rates, adjusted for different cities’ population sizes and baseline death rates.

Between 2001 and 2015, most of the events above the 7.26℃ extreme heat threshold occurred in Adelaide, Melbourne and Perth. Brisbane and Sydney had fewer days above this threshold.

Figure 1 – Histograms of the Excess Heat Index for major Australian cities between 2001 and 2015.

The importance of acclimatisation

Several previous studies have linked excessive heat to adverse events such as deaths (see here, here and here), and emergency department visits and ambulance call-outs (see here, here and here). But my study is the first to solely focus on the extreme heat index acclimatisation measure, and to identify a temperature threshold in this way. This measure is important, as it identifies the times when residents of cities with different background climates begin to struggle with the heat.

The Bureau of Meteorology does not currently use the 7.26℃ threshold identified in my paper. Doing so may improve predictions of which heatwaves are most likely to turn deadly for significant numbers of people living in our major cities.

Implications for policy

Since the severe heatwaves of 2009, many states and territories have implemented or revised their heatwave response plans, or conducted awareness campaigns to educate people about the health risks. But more can be done to make vulnerable people aware of upcoming heatwave events.

A 2016 review proposed that heatwave response plans and early warning systems should be evaluated and updated at least every five years, to ensure that they remain effective, and to incorporate up-to-date knowledge about population-level vulnerability to heat stress.

While my research has focused on Australia’s five largest cities, this does not mean that extreme heat is any less dangerous in other areas. Nor is the danger limited to prolonged heatwaves – individual hot days can catch people out too. A NSW study found that emergency hospital admissions due to dehydration and other heat-related injuries rose significantly on individual hot days, as well as during hot spells lasting at least three days.

This suggests that we need to develop more complex heat risk management plans, with targeted responses for different health issues based on the longevity of extreme heat events.

Implications for the future

We also need to consider the patterns of extremely hot temperatures that we are likely to encounter in the future. Recent research found that changes in the frequency and duration of heatwaves will be larger in the north of Australia than the south. But the same study also found that “heatwave amplitude” – the intensity of the hottest day of the hottest heatwave – will increase more in southern parts of Australia.

The ConversationThis research suggests that cities south of Brisbane will experience the most severe temperature spikes beyond what their residents are used to dealing with.

Thomas Longden, Senior Research Fellow, University of Technology Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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It’s a savage summer in the Northern Hemisphere – and climate change is slashing the odds of more heatwaves


Andrew King, University of Melbourne and Ben Henley, University of Melbourne

In Australia we know about sweltering summer heat. We all remember the images of burned koala paws, collapsing tennis players and, far more seriously, the tragic events of Black Saturday.

Aussies may scoff at Britain’s idea of a heatwave, but this time it’s the real deal and it’s no laughing matter.

Extreme heat has hit locations throughout the Northern Hemisphere, in places as far apart as Montreal, Glasgow, Tokyo and Lapland. In the past few weeks heat records have tumbled in a wide range of places, most notably:




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Heat has not been the only problem. Much of northern Europe is experiencing a very persistent drought, with little to no measurable rainfall in months. This has caused the normally lush green fields of England and other European countries to turn brown and even reveal previously hidden archaeological monuments.

There have also been major wildfires in northern England, Sweden and, most recently and devastatingly, Greece. The Greek wildfires came off the back of a very dry winter and spring.

What’s behind the widespread extreme heat?

The jet stream, a high-altitude band of air that pushes weather systems around at lower altitudes, has been weaker than normal. It has also been positioned unusually far to the north, particularly over Europe. This has kept the low-pressure systems that often drive wind and rain over northern Europe at bay.

The jet stream has remained locked in roughly the same position over the Atlantic Ocean and northern Europe for the past couple of months. This has meant that the same weather types have remained over the same locations most of the time.

Weather is typically more transient than it has been recently. Even when we do have blocking high-pressure systems associated with high temperatures in northern Europe, they don’t normally linger as long as this.

Is it driven by climate change?

Although climatologists have made great strides in recent years in the field of event attribution – identifying the human climate fingerprint on particular extreme weather events – it is hard to quantify the role of climate change in an event that is still unfolding.

Until the final numbers are in we won’t be able to tell just how much climate change has altered the likelihood or intensity of these particular heat extremes.

Having said that, we can use past analyses of extreme heat events, together with future climate change projections, to infer whether climate change is playing a role in these events.

We also know that increasing numbers of hot temperature records are being set, and that the increased probability of hot temperature records can indeed be attributed to the human influence on the climate.

In Europe especially, there is already a large body of literature that has looked at the role of human-caused climate change in heat extremes. In fact, the very first event attribution study, led by Peter Stott from the UK Met Office, found that human-caused climate change had at least doubled the likelihood of the infamous European heatwave of 2003.

For all manner of heat extremes in Europe and elsewhere, including in Japan, a clear and discernible link with climate change has been made.

Research has also shown that heat extremes similar to those witnessed over the past month or two are expected to become more common as global temperatures continue to climb. The world has so far had around 1℃ of global warming above pre-industrial levels, but at the global warming limits proposed in the Paris climate agreement, hot summers like that of 2003 in central Europe would be a common occurrence.

At 2℃ of global warming, the higher of the two Paris targets, 2003-like hot summers would very likely happen in most years.

Similarly, we know that heat exposure and heat-induced deaths in Europe will increase with global warming, even if we can limit this warming to the levels agreed in Paris.




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But summers have always been hot, haven’t they?

For most parts of the world summers have got warmer, and the hottest summer on record is relatively recent – such as 2003 in parts of central Europe and 2010 in much of eastern Europe. One exception is central England, where the hottest summer remains 1976, although it may be challenged this year.

While extreme hot summers and heatwaves did happen in the past, they were less common. One big difference as far as England is concerned is that its extreme 1976 heatwave was a global outlier, whereas this year’s isn’t.

In 1976 northwestern Europe had higher temperature anomalies than almost anywhere else on the globe. In June 2018 the same region was unusually warm, but so was most of the rest of the Northern Hemisphere.

The ConversationSo while the persistent weather patterns are driving much of the extreme heat we’re seeing across the Northern Hemisphere, we know that human-caused climate change is nudging the temperatures up and increasing the odds of new heat extremes.

Andrew King, ARC DECRA fellow, University of Melbourne and Ben Henley, Research Fellow in Climate and Water Resources, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight: the science of beautiful sunsets



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If you live in a place where the weather moves west to east, then an old proverb could help you predict the weather.
TimOve/flickr

Adam Morgan, Australian Bureau of Meteorology

“A red sky at night is a shepherd’s delight! A red sky in the morning is a shepherd’s warning.”

Perhaps this saying came to mind if you caught a spectacular sunrise or sunset recently.

Since biblical times and probably before, proverbs and folklore such as this developed as a way for societies to understand and foretell prevailing weather conditions.

The “red sky” proverb has endured across cultures for centuries, and modern science can explain why this is so.




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What causes a red sky at sunrise and sunset?

The Sun is low on the horizon at sunrise and sunset. At these times of the day, sunlight has had to travel through more of the atmosphere to reach us. When light hits the atmosphere it is scattered, particularly when dust, smoke and other particles are in the air.

This scattering affects the blue part of the light spectrum the most. So by the time the sunlight reaches our eyes there is generally more of the red and yellow parts of the spectrum remaining.

Dust and smoke particles commonly build up in the atmosphere beneath high-pressure systems, which are generally associated with dry and settled weather.

If you’ve ever been to Darwin in the Northern Territory during the dry season (the period between May and September), you’ll know glorious red and orange sunsets are an almost daily occurrence.

This makes sense – the sky across the Top End at this time of year is often full of dust particles whipped up off the land by dry southeasterly winds, as well as smoke from bushfires burning through the landscape.

What can red sky tell us about the weather?

In areas of the world where weather systems move routinely from the west to the east, including across southern areas of Australia, the “red sky” proverb often holds true.

A red sky sunrise suggests that an area of high pressure and fine weather, with its trapped dust and other particles, has moved out towards to the east. This allows for an area of lower pressure and deteriorating weather – perhaps a cold front and band of rain – to move in from the west during the day.

On the other hand, a red sky sunset tells us the worst of the weather has now eased, with higher pressure and improving weather approaching from the west for the following day.

Across northern Australia and other areas of the tropics, the “red sky” proverb is an unreliable method to predict the weather. In these regions, weather patterns are often very localised, moving in no particular direction at all, and larger tropical weather systems usually move from east to west.

Red skies and cloud

What often makes red sky sunrises and sunsets even more spectacular is the position of the Sun in the sky, relative to cloud.

When the Sun is low on the horizon, rays of light shine back up onto the underside of cloud high in the sky, reflecting back those bright orange and red colours that make it look as if the sky has turned to fire.

With a red sky sunrise, the eastern sky is more likely to be cloud-free with finer weather, allowing the Sun to shine upon the higher cloud moving in with the deteriorating weather from the west.

With a red sky sunset, it’s the western sky more likely to be clear, with the Sun’s rays shining up onto cloud further east.

So the next time you spot a spectacular sunrise or sunset, keep the “red sky” proverb in mind and you’ll become a pro at forecasting the weather in no time!




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The Conversation

Adam Morgan, Senior Meteorologist, Australian Bureau of Meteorology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

South-East Queensland is droughtier and floodier than we thought



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South-East Queensland residents need to prepare for more regular floods, according to new data.
Shutterstock

Jack Coates-Marnane, Griffith University; Joanne Burton, Griffith University; John Tibby, University of Adelaide; Jon Olley, Griffith University; Joseph M. McMahon, Griffith University, and Justine Kemp, Griffith University

New data recording the past 1,500 years of flows in the Brisbane River have revealed that South-East Queensland’s climate – once assumed to be largely stable – is in fact highly variable.

Until now, we have only had access to 200 years of weather records in South-East Queensland. But our new research used marine sediment cores (dirt from the bottom of the ocean) to reconstruct stream flows and rainfall over past millennia.

This shows that long droughts and regular floods are both prominent features in South-East Queensland’s climate.

This is concerning. Decisions about where we build infrastructure and how we use water have been based on the assumption that our climate – especially rainfall – is relatively stable.




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Archives of past climates

Natural archives of climate are preserved within things such as tree rings, coral skeletons, ice cores, lake or marine sediments. Examining them lets us extend our climate records back beyond documented history.

We can then undertake water planning in the context of a longer record of climate, instead of our short-term instrumental records.

In this study, we used sediment cores from Moreton Bay (next to the mouth of the Brisbane River) to reconstruct the river’s flow over the past 1,500 years. In these cores we measured various indicators of fresh water to reconstruct a record of streamflow and regional rainfall.

At the turn of the last millennium the region was in the middle of a prolonged dry spell that lasted some six centuries, from roughly the year 600 to 1200. After about 1350 the region became gradually wetter, with peaks revealing a series of extreme floods in the late 1600s and early 1700s. Large floods in the 1700s have also been documented in the upper reaches of the catchment, in the Lockyer Valley.

These broad shifts in regional rainfall and streamflow are linked to drivers of global climates, including hemispheric cooling and the El Niño-Southern Oscillation.




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A cool La Niña-dominant climate that persisted from roughly 1350 until 1750 caused increased rainfall and reduced evaporation.

In addition, the southward displacement of monsoon troughs at this time may have increased the likelihood of cyclone-related weather systems reaching southern Queensland.

This information helps us contextualise the climate of the last 200 years and gives us some insights into how regional rainfall responds to shifts in global climate.

Wet and dry extremes

Over the past 20 years, South-East Queensland has experienced its fair share of extreme weather events. Severe floods have caused deaths and damaged infrastructure. Flooding cost the Australian economy some A$30 billion in 2011.

Regular droughts may mean South-East Queensland needs to rethink water resource strategies.
Shutterstock

The millennium drought, which in this region was most severe from 2003-08, resulted in widespread water shortages. This prompted major investment in the South-East Queensland Water Grid, a connected network of dams, water treatment plants, reservoirs, pump stations and pipelines.

So far Queensland has coped with everything Mother Nature has thrown at it. But what if extreme floods and droughts became the norm rather than the exception?




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Water quality is getting worse

The 2011 and 2013 floods highlighted the vulnerability to these extreme events of Brisbane’s major water treatment facility at Mt Crosby. The drinking water supply to the city in 2013 became too muddy for purification. The 2011 flood was also alarmingly muddy.

Such events also threaten the ecosystem health of downstream waterways, including the iconic Moreton Bay

Our reconstruction found that big floods over the past 1,500 years rivalled the size of floods in recorded history (1893, 1974 and 2011), but the level of sediment in the water of more recent floods seems to be unprecedented.

This indicates that historical and ongoing land-use changes in the Brisbane River catchment are contributing to more abrupt and erosive floods.

This will continue unless better land management techniques are adopted to improve the resilience of catchments to extreme weather events.

What does this mean for the future?

We are learning that over the last millennium natural climate and rainfall have been more variable than previously thought. This means that modern anthropogenic climate change may be exacerbated by a background of already high natural climate variability.

In addition, our water infrastructure has been built based on a narrow understanding of natural climate variability, limited to the last 200 years. This may mean the quantity of reliable long-term freshwater resources in eastern Australia has been overestimated.


The Conversation


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Jack Coates-Marnane, Post-doctoral research fellow, Griffith University; Joanne Burton, Adjunct Research Fellow, Griffith University; John Tibby, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Change, University of Adelaide; Jon Olley, Professor of Water Science, Griffith University; Joseph M. McMahon, PhD candidate, Griffith University, and Justine Kemp, Senior Research Fellow in Geomorphology, Griffith University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.