The weather is now political



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Does it make sense any more to talk about the weather – like record heatwaves in Sydney – as separate from the developing climate patterns we are seeing?
Stilgherrian/flickr, CC BY

Astrida Neimanis, University of Sydney and Jennifer Hamilton, University of Sydney

This article is part of the Democracy Futures series, a joint global initiative between The Conversation and the Sydney Democracy Network. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century. The Conversation


Until recently, weather talk was an easy filler for any awkward silence. But tragically for polite conversationalists everywhere, the weather is no longer mundane.

Especially in summers like the one we just had in Sydney, weather talk has many of us breaking a surprising sweat — and not only from the heat. With climate change a hot-button issue globally (in spite and even because of its lack of mention in national budgets, or erasure from government websites), talk about the weather now has an unavoidably political tinge.

While it may not lead directly to impassioned critiques of climate governance, nor immediately sort the sceptics from the believers, talk of brewing storms or dried-up reservoirs now carries with it a whiff of trepidation about our collective forecasts.

Bridging the divide

Despite the growing politicisation of weather talk, weather and climate are usually understood as empirically distinct bodies of knowledge. Climate is, to quote British comedy duo Armstrong and Miller, “a long-term trend averaged over many years”, as opposed to weather, “which is what’s going on outside the window right now”.

The problem with this distinction is that climate change’s global reach and extended time scale can make it seem like it is happening somewhere else and to someone else (or, indeed, not at all). So perhaps the distinction is not useful for the cultural processes of adaptation. What might happen if we were to breach official definitions and disciplinary lines and think of the two things together?

Closing the distance between weather as event and climate as pattern can accomplish several things. Most obviously, it reminds us that there is a relationship between the two. Without weather, there would be nothing to amalgamate as climate.

While one heatwave does not equate to “climate change”, many and increasing ones give us pause to wonder. Leslie Hughes and Will Steffen are doing the data-driven work in this regard.

Ironically, though, while the complexity of climate data might put me off engaged concern for the global climate, the exhaustion I feel cycling behind a truck in 30℃-plus weather might do the opposite. Maybe this bodily discomfort is part of the point.

In other words, bringing climate and weather together can remind us that climate change is not only about abstract calculations on scales too big for our small and ultimately short-lived human forms to fathom.

Thinking about weather as part of climate underscores that we experience climate change with and on our bodies; climate change is lived by us at a very human scale, too.

The daily experience of weathering

So, what would it mean to harness the daily, mundane intrusions of weather as political? In contrast to terms like resilience (complicit with neoliberal incitements of bootstrapping) or sustainability (which suggests we get to keep something intact), weathering invites us to consider what we will lose along the way.

Weathered bodies, weathered houses, weathered cars, weathered clothes, weathered relationships, weathered dreams – these all bear scars of what has worn them down, and of what they have been asked to carry, to survive, and to hack.

Weathering leaves the scars of both what has been lost and what has been survived.
Development Planning Unit at University College London/flickr

Bringing this sense of lived climate change to our everyday perception is neither an easy nor comfortable thing. For one, discomfort is not a place we generally like to dwell for long. In a more political sense, though, paying attention to the weather as something in which we are intimately implicated, not just a disconnected backdrop to our human dramas, reminds us we are weather-makers too.

Environmental activist Bill McKibben observes:

On a stable planet, nature provided a background against which the human drama took place; on the unstable planet we’re creating, the background becomes the highest drama.

This could be the epigraph for the Anthropocene.

Even in wealthy, climate-controlled places, weather inserts a reminder of one’s privilege, or luck, or vulnerability, or hardship, into those once mundane spaces. We may bemoan the slipping away of vacuous weather chats — “does everything have to be political?” — but perhaps noticing the weather can become an opening for everyday engagement in the politics of climate change instead.

In gender and cultural studies and the environmental humanities, rather than trying to leave weather-talk pregnant with fear, anticipation or political outrage, we are explicitly thinking with and through the weather to develop strategies for a rigorous and political response to climate change.

One way we are doing this is through a tactic or practice we call “weathering” – that is, cultivating attunement to how our own bodies, and bodies of others, experience weather. This includes how we and they manage it architecturally, technologically, professionally and socially.

We don’t all weather equally

Through the concept of “weathering”, our work forces a confrontation between large-scale climate data and embodied sociopolitical experiences that are too often treated as separate. It also underscores the politics and activism we hope this tactic can engender.

Such attentive acclimatisation reveals that, even though we’re all in the same planetary boat when it comes to global warming, we’re not all in it in the same way. This is something ecofeminists and environmental justice scholars have long known. Our work helps articulate how difference also marks our apparently banal encounters with the weather.

At a “Hacking the Anthropocence” symposium in Sydney this month, scholars, artists and activists are responding to the idea of “weathering”. The variety of experience that such a provocation reveals is astounding.

For Anne Werner’s and Genevieve Derwent’s work growing chickens on Autumn Farm and Cameron Muir’s reflections on life jackets for refugees, the weather holds a very different significance and function. Climate change is undoubtedly political – but all the more so because of these uneven individual and collective experiences of the weather.

Other kinds of bodily, socioeconomic, historical and geopolitical differences further complicate how we weather the world. When it comes to rising sea levels, or dried-up water holes, for example, racism, colonialism and gendered labour are all significant. Weathering as a concept thus asks us to think about what else, besides meteorological phenomena, one might be asked to weather.

We may all be in the same planetary boat, but we’re not all in it in the same way.
yeowatzup/flickr

Note that a more common meaning of “weathering” is as synonym for withstanding or enduring. Not only will different regions weather differently in a changing climate (drier, hotter in central Australia; more flooding on the US Atlantic coast; disappearing land in Pacific Islands), but people within those regions weather differently too.

At our upcoming symposium on weathering, Ngarigu scholar Jakelin Troy will explore what it means to weather colonisation in Australia in a time of extinction.

A world weathering together

Our human experiences of weather are linked to how the non-human world is weathering what we have forced it to carry. Artist Victoria Hunt will ask us to imagine with her “The Cry of Water”, while archaeologist Denis Byrne will explore the significance of seawalls, which are weathered by erosion. Human and non-human worlds weather together in a fraught and desirous intimacy.

The animal world is also constantly weathering. We know about catastrophic events such as the endangered bats that cannot cope with heat above 42℃. We’ve learned that the Great Barrier Reef is bleaching as water temperatures rise.

But what about the less-well-known water-holding frog or, indeed, ants and brine shrimp? How do they weather? At our symposium, Rebecca Giggs, Kate Wright and Emily O’Gorman (respectively) will let us know how, and suggest what we humans might learn about weathering the world differently.

These contributions invite us to explore how our experiences of the weather are highly mediated by a range of social, political and cultural forces. Anthropologist of institutions Tess Lea will investigate how bureaucracy (materialised as mountains of paperwork) orients different populations’ capacity to weather. Cli-fi expert and petrocultures scholar Stephanie LeMenager invites us to speculate on what a new kind of civic engagement might look like in this context.

Weathering directly connects human social, cultural and economic structures such as racism, colonialism and gender oppression to climate change. It insists that we think about global warming on a massive scale as always textured by acute experiences of social phenomena.

We recognise that the weight of a changing climate will not be borne equally by bodies – across geographies, economic status, or species.

So next time you curse a forgotten umbrella as the skies open up, or welcome the sun shining on your kid’s birthday party in the park, remember that when it comes to the weather, the personal is getting more and more political.


Hacking the Anthropocene II: Weathering (May 25-31) is supported by the Sydney Social Sciences and Humanities Advanced Research Centre (SSSHARC); the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions; the Sydney Environment Institute at the University of Sydney; the Planetary Health Initiative at the University of Sydney; and the Seed Box: a MISTRA-FORMAS Environmental Humanities Collaboratory (hosted at Linkoping University, Sweden).

Astrida Neimanis, Lecturer in Gender and Cultural Studies, University of Sydney and Jennifer Hamilton, Postdoctoral Research Associate, Department of Gender and Cultural Studies, University of Sydney

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

The Sydney Barrier Reef: engineering a natural defence against future storms


Rob Roggema, University of Technology Sydney

The risk of more severe storms and cyclones in the highly urbanised coastal areas of Newcastle, Sydney and Wollongong might not be acute, but it is a real future threat with the further warming of the southern Pacific Ocean. One day a major storm – whether an East Coast Low or even a cyclone – could hit Sydney. The Conversation

With higher ocean temperatures killing and bleaching coral along the Great Barrier Reef to the north, we could also imagine where the right temperatures for a coral reef would be in a warmer climate. Most probably, this would be closer to the limits of the low latitudes, hence in front of the Sydney metro area.

We should then consider whether it is possible to help engineer a natural defence against storms, a barrier reef, should warming oceans make conditions suitable here.

Ocean warming trend is clear

The oceans are clearly warming at an alarming rate, with the unprecedented extent and intensity of coral bleaching events a marker of rising temperatures. After the 2016-2017 summer, coral bleaching affected two-thirds of the Great Barrier Reef.

On the other side of the Pacific, sea surface temperatures off Peru’s northern coast have risen 5-6℃ degrees above normal. Beneath the ocean surface, the warming trend is consistent too.

The East Australian Current keeps the waters around Lord Howe Island warm enough to sustain Australia’s southernmost coral reef. The waters off Sydney are just a degree or two cooler.

With the East Australian Current now extending further south, the warming of these south-eastern coastal waters might be enough in a couple of decades for Nemo to swim in reality under Sydney Harbour Bridge.

This shift in ocean temperatures is expected to drive strong storms and inland floods, according to meteorologists.

On top of this, when we plot a series of maps since 1997 of cyclone tracks across the Pacific, it shows a slight shift to more southern routes. These cyclones occur only in the Tasman Sea and way out from the coast, but, still, there is a tendency to move further south. The northern part of New Zealand recently experienced the impacts this could have.

Think big to prepare for a big storm

If we would like to prevent what Sandy did to New York, we need to think big.

If we don’t want a storm surge entering Parramatta River, flooding the low-lying areas along the peninsulas, if we don’t want flash-flooding events as result of river discharges, if we don’t want our beaches to be washed away, if we want to keep our property along the water, and if we want to save lives, we’d better prepare to counter these potential events through anticipating their occurrence.

The coast is the first point where a storm impacts the city. Building higher and stronger dams have proven to be counterproductive. Once the dam breaks or overflows the damage is huge. Instead we should use the self-regenerating defensive powers nature offers us.

Thinking big, we could design a “Sydney Barrier Reef”, which allows nature to regenerate and create a strong and valuable coast.

The first 30-40 kilometres of the Pacific plateau is shallow enough to establish an artificial reef. The foundations of this new Sydney Barrier Reef could consist of a series of concrete, iron or wooden structures, placed on the continental shelf, just beneath the water surface. Intelligently composed to allow the ocean to bring plants, fish and sand to attach to those structures, it would then start to grow as the base for new coral.

This idea has not been tested for the Sydney continental flat yet. But in other parts of the world experiments with artificial reefs seem promising. At various sites, ships, metro carriages and trains seem to be working as the basis for marine life to create a new underworld habitat

The Sydney Barrier Reef will have the following advantages:

  1. Over decades a natural reef will grow. Coral will develop and a new ecosystem will emerge.

  2. This reef will protect the coast and create new sandbanks, shallow areas and eventually barrier islands, as the Great Barrier Reef has done.

  3. It will increase the beach area, because the conditions behind the reef will allow sediments to settle.

  4. It creates new surfing conditions as a result of the sandbanks.

  5. It will protect Sydney from the most severe storm surges as it breaks the surge.

  6. It will present a new tourist attraction of international allure.

Let’s create a pilot project as a test. Let’s start to design and model the pilot to investigate what happens in this particular location. Let’s simulate the increase of temperature over time and model the impact of a cyclone.

Let’s create, so when Sandy hits Sydney, we will be better protected.

Rob Roggema, Professor of Sustainable Urban Environments, University of Technology Sydney

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

Extreme weather likely behind worst recorded mangrove dieback in northern Australia


Penny van Oosterzee, James Cook University and Norman Duke, James Cook University

One of the worst instances of mangrove forest dieback ever recorded globally struck Australia’s Gulf of Carpentaria in the summer of 2015-16. A combination of extreme temperatures, drought and lowered sea levels likely caused this dieback, according to our investigation published in the journal Marine and Freshwater Research. The Conversation

The dieback, which coincided with the Great Barrier Reef’s worst ever bleaching event, affected 1,000km of coastline between the Roper River in the Northern Territory and Karumba in Queensland.

Views of mangrove shorelines impacted by dieback event in late 2015, east of Limmen Bight River, Northern Territory (imagery: NC Duke, June 2016).

About 7,400 hectares, or 6%, of the gulf’s mangrove forest had died. Losses were most severe in the NT, where around 5,500ha of mangroves suffered dieback. Some of the gulf’s many catchments, such as the Robinson and McArthur rivers, lost up to 26% of their mangroves.

Views of seaward mangrove fringes showing foreshore sections of minor (left side) and extreme (right side) damage as observed in June 2016 between Limmen and MacArthur rivers, NT. These might effectively also represent before and after scenarios, but together show how some shoreline sections have been left exposed and vulnerable.
NC Duke

The gulf, a remote but valuable place

The Gulf of Carpentaria is a continuous sweep of wide tidal wetlands fringed by mangroves, meandering estuaries, creeks and beaches. Its size and naturalness makes it globally exceptional.

An apron of broad mudflats and seagrass meadows supports thousands of marine turtles and dugongs. A thriving fishing industry worth at least A$30 million ultimately depends on mangroves.

Dieback of mangroves around Karumba in Queensland, with surviving saltmarsh, October 2016.
NC Duke

Mangroves and saltmarsh plants are uniquely adapted to extreme and fickle coastal shoreline ecosystems. They normally cope with salt and daily inundation, having evolved specialised physiological and morphological traits, such as salt excretion and unique breathing roots.

But in early 2016, local tour operators and consultants doing bird surveys alerted authorities to mangroves dying en masse along entire shorelines. They reported skeletonised mangroves over several hundred kilometres, with the trees appearing to have died simultaneously. They sent photos and even tracked down satellite images to confirm their concerns. The NT government supported the first investigative surveys in June 2016.

Areas affected by severe mangrove dieback in late 2015 (grey shaded) along southern shorelines of Australia’s Gulf of Carpentaria from Northern Territory to Queensland. Aerial surveys (red lines) were undertaken on three occasions during 2016 to cover around 600km of the 1000km impacted.
NC Duke

In the end, the emails from citizen scientists nailed the timing: “looks like it started maybe December 2015”; the severity: “I’ve seen dieback before, but not like this”; and the cause: “guessing it may be the consequence of the four-year drought”.

Our investigation used satellite imagery dating back to 1972 to confirm that the dieback was an unparalleled event. Further aerial helicopter surveys and mapping during 2016, after the dieback, validated the severity of the event extending across the entire gulf. Mangrove dieback has been recorded in Australia in the past but over decades, not months.

Mangroves losses (red) and surviving mangroves (green) around the shoreline and mouth of the Limmen Bight River, south-western Gulf of Carpentaria, April 2015 to April 2016.
NC Duke, J. Kovacs

Mysterious patterns in the dieback

We still don’t fully understand what caused the dieback. But we can rule out the usual suspects of chemical or oil spills, or severe storm events. It was also significant that losses occurred simultaneously across a 1,000km front.

There were also a number of tell-tale patterns in the dieback. The worst-impacted locations had more or less complete loss of shoreline-fringing mangroves. This mirrored a general loss of mangroves fringing tidal saltpans and saltmarshes along this semi-arid coast.

Mangroves were unaffected where they kept their feet wet along estuaries and rivers. This, as well as the timing and severity of the event, points to a connection with extreme weather and climate patterns, and particularly the month-long drop of 20cm in local sea levels.

Extreme weather the likely culprit

We believe the dieback is best explained by drought, hot water, hot air and the temporary drop in sea level. Each of these was correlated with the strong 2015-16 El Niño. Let’s take a look at each in turn.

First, the dieback happened at the end of an unusually long period of severe drought conditions, which prevailed for much of 2015 following four years of below-average rainfall. This caused severe moisture stress in mangroves growing alongside saltmarsh and saltpans.

Second, the dieback coincided with hot sea temperatures that also caused coral bleaching along the Great Barrier Reef. While mangroves are known to be relatively heat-tolerant, they have their limits.

The air temperatures recorded at the time of the mangrove dieback, particularly from February to September 2015, were also exceptionally high.

Views of mangrove shorelines impacted by dieback event in late 2015, north of Karumba, Queensland (imagery: NC Duke, Oct 2016).

Third, the sea level dropped by up to 20cm at the time of the dieback when the mangroves were both heat- and moisture-stressed. Sea levels commonly drop in the western Pacific (and rise in the eastern Pacific) during strong El Niño years: and the 2015-2016 El Niño was the third-strongest recorded.

The mangroves appear to have died of thirst. Mangroves may be hardy plants, but when sea levels drop, reducing inundation, coupled with already heat-and-drought-stressed weather conditions, then the plants will die – much like your neglected pot plants.

We don’t yet know what role human-caused climate change played in these particular weather events or El Niño. But the unprecedented extent of the dieback, the confluence of extreme climate events and the coincidence with the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef mean the role of climate change will be of critical interest in the global response to mangrove decline.

What future for mangroves?

The future for mangroves around the world is mixed. Thanks to climate change, droughts are expected to become hotter and more frequent. If the gulf’s mangroves experience further dieback in the future, this will have serious implications for Australia’s northern fisheries including the iconic prawn fishery, mudcrab and fin fish fisheries. All species are closely associated with healthy mangroves.

We don’t know whether the mangroves will recover or not. But there is now a further risk of shoreline erosion and retreat, particularly if the region is struck by a cyclone – and this may have already begun with recent cyclonic weather and flooding in the gulf. The movement of mangrove sediments will lead to massive releases of carbon uniquely buried among their roots.

Mangroves are among the most carbon-rich forests in the tropics and semi-tropics and much of this carbon could enter the atmosphere.

Aerial view of severe mangrove dieback near Karumba in Queensland, October 2016.
NC Duke

Now we urgently need to understand how mangroves died at large and smaller scales (such as river catchments), so we can develop strategies to help them adapt to future change.


Australia’s top specialists and managers will be reviewing the current situation at a dedicated workshop during next week’s Australian Mangrove and Saltmarsh Network annual conference in Hobart.

Penny van Oosterzee, Principal Research Adjunct James Cook University and University Fellow Charles Darwin University, James Cook University and Norman Duke, Professor of Mangrove Ecology, James Cook University

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

Climate change’s signature was writ large on Australia’s crazy summer of 2017


Andrew King, University of Melbourne; David Karoly, University of Melbourne; Geert Jan van Oldenborgh, Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute ; Matthew Hale, UNSW, and Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick, UNSW

Australia’s summer is officially over, and it’s certainly been a weird one. The centre and east of the continent have had severe heat with many temperature records falling, particularly in New South Wales and Queensland. The Conversation

For much of the country, the heat peaked on the weekend of February 11-12, when many places hit the high 40s. That heatwave, which mainly affected NSW, was quickly attributed to climate change. But can we say whether the whole summer bore the fingerprint of human-induced climate change?

Overall, Australia experienced its 12th-hottest summer on record. NSW had its hottest recorded summer.

The NSW record average summer temperatures can indeed be linked directly to climate change. We have reached this conclusion using two separate methods of analysis.

First, using coupled model simulations from a paper led by climatologist Sophie Lewis, we see that the extreme heat over the season is at least 50 times more likely in the current climate compared to a modelled world without human influences.

We also carried out an analysis based on current and past observations (similar to previous analyses used for record heat in the Arctic in 2016 and central England in 2014), comparing the likelihood of this record in today’s climate with the likelihood of it happening in the climate of 1910 (the beginning of reliable weather observations).

Again, we found at least a 50-fold increase in the likelihood of this hot summer due to the influence of human factors on the climate.

It is clear that human-induced climate change is greatly increasing the likelihood of record hot summers in NSW and Australia as a whole.

When we look at record summer heat, as represented by average maximum temperatures, we again find a clear human fingerprint on the NSW record.

The Sydney and Canberra heat

So what about when we dig down to the local scale and look at those severe heatwaves? Can we still see the hand of climate change in those events?

As climate varies more on local scales than it does across an entire state like NSW, it can be harder to pick out the effect of climate change from the noise of the weather. On the other hand, it is the local temperature that people feel and is perhaps most meaningful.

In Canberra, we saw extreme heat with temperatures hitting 36℃ on February 9 and then topping 40℃ for the following two days. For that heatwave, we looked at the role of climate change, again by using the Weather@home model and by comparing past and present weather observations.

Both of these methods show that climate change has increased the likelihood of this kind of bout of extreme heat. The Weather@home results point to at least a 50% increase in the likelihood of this kind of heatwave.

For Sydney, which also had extreme temperatures, especially in the western suburbs, the effect of climate change on this heatwave is less clear. The observations show that it is likely that climate change increased the probability of such a heatwave occurring. The model shows the same, but the high year-to-year variability makes identifying the human influence more difficult at this location.

A sign of things to come?

We are seeing more frequent and intense heatwaves across Australia as the climate warms. While the characteristics of these weather events vary a great deal from year to year, the recent heat over eastern Australia has been exceptional. These trends are projected to continue in the coming decades, meaning that the climate change signal in these events will strengthen as conditions diverge further from historical averages.

Traditionally, Sydney’s central business district has had about three days a year above 35℃, averaged over the period 1981-2010. Over the decades from 2021 to 2040 we expect that number to average four a year instead.

To put this summer into context, we have seen a record 11 days hitting the 35℃ mark in Sydney.

It is a similar story for Canberra, where days above 35℃ tend to be more common (seven per year on average for 1981-2010) and are projected to increase to 12 per year for 2021-40. This summer, Canberra had 18 days above 35℃.

All of these results point to problems in the future as climate change causes heatwaves like this summer’s to become more common. This has many implications, not least for our health as many of us struggle to cope with the effects of excessive heat.

Some of our more unusual records

While the east battled record-breaking heat, the west battled extreme weather of a very different sort. Widespread heavy rains on February 9-11 caused flooding in parts of Western Australia. And on February 9 Perth experienced its coldest February day on record, peaking at just 17.4℃.

Back east, and just over a week after the extreme heat in Canberra, the capital’s airport experienced its coldest February morning on record (albeit after a weather station move in 2008). Temperatures dipped below 3℃ on the morning of February 21.

The past few months have given us more than our fair share of newsworthy weather. But the standout event has been the persistent and extreme heat in parts of eastern Australia – and that’s something we’re set to see plenty more of in the years to come.


Data were provided by the Bureau of Meteorology through its collaboration with the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science. This article was co-authored by Heidi Cullen, chief scientist with Climate Central.

Andrew King, Climate Extremes Research Fellow, University of Melbourne; David Karoly, Professor of Atmospheric Science, University of Melbourne; Geert Jan van Oldenborgh, Climate researcher, Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute ; Matthew Hale, Research Assistant, UNSW, and Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick, Research Fellow, UNSW

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

Climate change doubled the likelihood of the New South Wales heatwave


Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick, UNSW; Andrew King, University of Melbourne, and Matthew Hale, UNSW

The heatwave that engulfed southeastern Australia at the end of last week has seen heat records continue to tumble like Jenga blocks.

On Saturday February 11, as New South Wales suffered through the heatwave’s peak, temperatures soared to 47℃ in Richmond, 50km northwest of Sydney, while 87 fires raged across the state amid catastrophic fire conditions.

On that day, most of NSW experienced temperatures at least 12℃ above normal for this time of year. In White Cliffs, the overnight minimum was 34.2℃, a new record for the state’s highest observed minimum temperature.

On Friday, the average maximum temperature right across NSW hit 42.4℃, beating the previous February record of 42.0℃. The new record stood for all of 24 hours before it was smashed again on Saturday, as the whole state averaged 44.0℃ at its peak. At this time, NSW was the hottest place on Earth.

A degree or two here or there might not sound like much, but to put it in cricketing parlance, those temperature records are the equivalent of a modern test batsman retiring with an average of over 100 – the feat of outdoing Don Bradman’s fabled 99.94 would undoubtedly be front-page news.

And still the records continue to fall. Mungindi, on the border of NSW and Queensland, broke the Australian record of 50 days in a row above 35℃, set just four years ago at Bourke Airport, with the new record now at 52 days.

Meanwhile, two days after that sweltering Saturday we woke to find the fires ignited during the heatwave still cutting a swathe of destruction, with the small town of Uarbry, east of Dunedoo, all but burned to the ground.

This is all the more noteworthy when we consider that the El Niño of 2015-16 is long gone and the conditions that ordinarily influence our weather are firmly in neutral. This means we should expect average, not sweltering, temperatures.

Since Christmas, much of eastern Australia has been in a flux of extreme temperatures. This increased frequency of heatwaves shows a strong trend in observations, which is set to continue as the human influence on the climate deepens.

It is all part of a rapid warming trend that over the past decade has seen new heat records in Australia outnumber new cold records by 12 to 1.

Let’s be clear, this is not natural. Climate scientists have long been saying that we would feel the impacts of human-caused climate change in heat records first, before noticing the upward swing in average temperatures (although that is happening too). This heatwave is simply the latest example.

What’s more, in just a few decades’ time, summer conditions like these will be felt across the whole country regularly.

Attributing the heat

The useful thing scientifically about heatwaves is that we can estimate the role that climate change plays in these individual events. This is a relatively new field known as “event attribution”, which has grown and improved significantly over the past decade.

Using the Weather@Home climate model, we looked at the role of human-induced climate change in this latest heatwave, as we have for other events before.

We compared the likelihood of such a heatwave in model simulations that factor in human greenhouse gas emissions, compared with simulations in which there is no such human influence. Since 2017 has only just begun, we used model runs representing 2014, which was similarly an El Niño-neutral year, while also experiencing similar levels of human influence on the climate.

Based on this analysis, we found that heatwaves at least as hot as this one are now twice as likely to occur. In the current climate, a heatwave of this severity and extent occurs, on average, once every 120 years, so is still quite rare. However, without human-induced climate change, this heatwave would only occur once every 240 years.

In other words, the waiting time for the recent east Australian heatwave has halved. As climate change worsens in the coming decades, the waiting time will reduce even further.

Our results show very clearly the influence of climate change on this heatwave event. They tell us that what we saw last weekend is a taste of what our future will bring, unless humans can rapidly and deeply cut our greenhouse emissions.

Our increasingly fragile electricity networks will struggle to cope, as the threat of rolling blackouts across NSW showed. It is worth noting that the large number of rooftop solar panels in NSW may have helped to avert such a crisis this time around.

Our hospital emergency departments also feel the added stress of heat waves. When an estimated 374 people died from the heatwave that preceded the Black Saturday bushfires the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine resorted to storing bodies in hospitals, universities and funeral parlours. The Victorian heatwave of January 2014 saw 167 more deaths than expected, along with significant increases in emergency department presentations and ambulance callouts.

Infrastructure breaks down during heatwaves, as we saw in 2009 when railway lines buckled under the extreme conditions, stranding thousands of commuters. It can also strain Australia’s beloved sporting events, as the 2014 Australian Open showed.

These impacts have led state governments and other bodies to investigate heatwave management strategies, while our colleagues at the Bureau of Meteorology have developed a heatwave forecast service for Australia.

These are likely to be just the beginning of strategies needed to combat heatwaves, with conditions currently regarded as extreme set to be the “new normal” by the 2030s. With the ramifications of extreme weather clear to everyone who experienced this heatwave, there is no better time to talk about how we can ready ourselves.

We urgently need to discuss the health and economic impacts of heatwaves, and how we are going to cope with more of them in the future.


We would like to acknowledge Robert Smalley, Andrew Watkins and Karl Braganza of the Australian Bureau of Meteorology for providing observations included in this article. This article was amended on February 16, 2017, to include updated weather observations.

The Conversation

Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick, Research Fellow, UNSW; Andrew King, Climate Extremes Research Fellow, University of Melbourne, and Matthew Hale, Research Assistant, UNSW

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