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.

Read more:
We’ve learned a lot about heatwaves, but we’re still just warming up

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.


Three reasons why it’s a bad idea to ramp up Adelaide’s desalination plant

Sarah Ann Wheeler, University of Adelaide

Drought-affected farmers in New South Wales have called for South Australia to increase the use of its desalination plant to enable an increase in water allocations for other users along the Murray River.

The farmers’ argument is that if Adelaide in particular draws less water from the river more will be available for agriculture in NSW and Victoria.

The logic may sound appealing, but there are three good reasons why it’s not a good idea. Not only is desalination an incredibly expensive project, there are other strategies – like water pricing – that can more effectively reduce water demand.

Read more:
Is Australia’s current drought caused by climate change? It’s complicated

It’s also important to remember that the water flowing to South Australia is not “wasted” if it’s not diverted for industry. Stream flows are vital for keeping many ecosystems alive, and there are already serious concerns about current levels.

Adelaide doesn’t use that much water

First, Adelaide uses a very small amount of water from the River Murray. Over the past two decades, average diversions for metropolitan Adelaide and associated country areas have been just over 100 gigalitres (GL). This represents an average 1.25% of the water diversions in the Murray-Darling Basin.

SA in general (including irrigator use) has used an average 11% of water diversions over the past two decades. NSW has diverted 52% of surface water in the Murray-Darling Basin over the same period. Hence, the reality is that ramping up SA’s desal plant will have very little actual impact on NSW irrigators’ water allocations.

South Australia (the grey line) receives much less water from the Murray River than other states.
MDBA Water Audit Monitoring reports, CC BY

Desalination is expensive

Second, increasing desalination has heavy financial and environmental costs. The financial cost is why the plant has been run at only about 10% capacity (the minimum needed to maintain its working condition).

Previous economic analysis by consultants has suggested the desalination plant should only be used to increase water allocations to SA irrigators when temporary water market prices are above A$510 per megalitre (ML).

Given that temporary water prices are now trading around A$300/ML (albeit increasing due to increased water scarcity), we’re still a long way from a financial argument for turning to the desal plant, let alone considering the cost of its negative environmental impacts.

Read more:
Farmers experiencing drought-related stress need targeted support

Water is always variable

Third, we need to take into account the variable nature of Australia’s irrigation sector.

Farmers in NSW are complaining that they are on zero percentages of water allocations at the start of the water year (August 1). This sounds like a big problem. But it doesn’t mean the farmers will get no water from the river at all.

At the start of the season, water managers allot water in districts to irrigators every two weeks. Depending on the type of water entitlement owned, and given the current state of water conditions (e.g. storage, inflows, rainfall predictions), water managers will allocate a percentage of water to high security entitlements first, then general security, then low security. Only in high rainfall years will the low security group get any water. Most years they get none.

Since water was separated from land in the Murray-Darling Basin, this water is not tied to any particular use. Once allocated, irrigators can use their seasonal water for their crops, store it, sell it on the water market, or even choose to let it flow down the river.

It is not unusual for irrigators with low or general security entitlements to start the water year with low or no water allocated, especially in times of water scarcity. One reason is that these rights are traditionally associated with districts where farmers typically grow annual crops like rice and cotton. They have larger farms and more water rights – but also more flexibility about the amount they plant every year.

Low water allocations at the start of the water year act as a signal to these producers to think carefully about the amount of acreage to plant in the coming months. In addition, many NSW and Victorian farmers have access to carry-over water (unused stored water from the previous year).

The other option is the water market; irrigators can enter the water market to buy water. Current temporary water prices are still historically a lot lower than prices in the Millennium Drought, when temporary prices hit over A$1000/ML in many regions.

Finally, it is important to emphasise that water destined for urban use in SA is not “wasted water” for NSW and Victoria. It is still providing surface-water flows in the basin as it makes it way to SA.

Economic studies show that a healthy and sustainable river is worth millions of dollars in tourism and recreation, plus providing important cultural values, on which many small regional town economies are heavily dependent. And there is ongoing evidence that the Murray-Darling Basin is still far from being sustainable.

Read more:
The Murray Darling Basin Plan is not delivering – there’s no more time to waste

Unfortunately, many of the people who support more sustainable water reallocation for the environment are widely dispersed. They often do not have the lobbying power or the resources to engage successfully in policy debate.

The ConversationOf course, farmers need support. But the calls for more water to be allocated to irrigators will sound loudly as the drought continues, and it’s important to remember that there are other, less costly, options that also protect our environment.

Sarah Ann Wheeler, Professor in Water Economics, University of Adelaide

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

‘Epic Duck Challenge’ shows drones can outdo people at surveying wildlife

File 20180119 80171 5jolfq.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
A drone image of a breeding colony of Greater Crested Terns. Researchers used plastic bird decoys to replicate this species in an experiment that compared different ways of counting wildlife.
Jarrod Hodgson, CC BY-ND

Jarrod Hodgson, University of Adelaide; Aleks Terauds, and Lian Pin Koh, University of Adelaide

Ecologists are increasingly using drones to gather data. Scientists have used remotely piloted aircraft to estimate the health of fragile polar mosses, to measure and predict the mass of leopard seals, and even to collect whale snot. Drones have also been labelled as game-changers for wildlife population monitoring.

But once the take-off dust settles, how do we know if drones produce accurate data? Perhaps even more importantly, how do the data compare to those gathered using a traditional ground-based approach?

To answer these questions we created the #EpicDuckChallenge, which involved deploying thousands of plastic replica ducks on an Adelaide beach, and then testing various methods of tallying them up.

As we report today in the journal Methods in Ecology and Evolution, drones do indeed generate accurate wildlife population data – even more accurate, in fact, than those collected the old-fashioned way.

Jarrod Hodgson standing in one of the replica colonies of seabirds constructed for the #EpicDuckChallenge.
S. Andriolo

Assessing the accuracy of wildlife count data is hard. We can’t be sure of the true number of animals present in a group of wild animals. So, to overcome this uncertainty, we created life-sized, replica seabird colonies, each with a known number of individuals.

From the optimum vantage and in ideal weather conditions, experienced wildlife spotters independently counted the colonies from the ground using binoculars and telescopes. At the same time, a drone captured photographs of each colony from a range of heights. Citizen scientists then used these images to tally the number of animals they could see.

Counts of birds in drone-derived imagery were better than those made by wildlife observers on the ground. The drone approach was more precise and more accurate – it produced counts that were consistently closer to the true number of individuals.

Comparing the vantages: drone-derived photographs and the ground counter’s view.
J. Hodgson

The difference between the results was not trivial. Drone-derived data were between 43% and 96% more accurate than ground counts. The variation was due to how many pixels represented each bird, which in turn is related to the height that the drone was flown and the resolution of the camera.

This wasn’t a surprise. The experienced ground counters did well, but the drone’s vantage point was superior. Observing photos taken from above meant the citizen scientists did not have to contend with obscured birds that often occur during ground counts. The imagery also benefited the citizen scientists as they could digitally review their counts as many times as they needed. This reduced the likelihood of both missing an individual and counting an individual more than once.

The scientists were assisted by many volunteers, without whom the #EpicDuckChallenge would not have been possible.
J. Hodgson

However, even though it proved to be more accurate, making manual digital counts is still tedious and time-consuming. To address this, we developed a computer algorithm in the hope that it could further improve efficiency without diminishing data quality. And it did.

We delineated a proportion of birds in each colony to train the algorithm to recognise how the animal of interest appeared in the imagery. We found that using 10% training data was sufficient to produce a colony count that was comparable to that of a human reviewing the entire scene.

This computerisation can reduce the time needed to process data, providing the opportunity to cut the costs and resources needed to survey wildlife populations. When combined with the efficiencies drones provide for surveying sites that are hard to access on foot, these savings may be considerable.

Using drone monitoring in the field

Our results have important implications for a range of species. We think they are especially relevant to aggregating birds, including seabirds like albatrosses, surface nesting penguins and frigatebirds, as well as colonial nesting waterbirds like pelicans.

Other types of animals that are easily seen from above, including hauled-out seals and dugongs, are highly suited to drone monitoring. The nests or tracks of animals, such as orangutans and turtles, can also be used to infer presence.

Additional experiments will be useful to assess the ability of drones to survey animals that prefer to stay hidden and those within complex habitats. Such assessments are of interest to us, and researchers around the globe, with current investigations focused on wildlife such as arboreal mammals and cetaceans.

We are still learning about how wildlife react to the presence of drones, and more research is required to quantify these responses in a range of species and environments. The results will help to refine and improve drone monitoring protocols so that drones have minimal impact on wildlife. This is particularly important for species that are prone to disturbance, and where close proximity is not possible or desirable.

Read more:
How drones can help fight the war on shark attacks

The world is rapidly changing, with many negative outcomes for wildlife. Technology like drones can help scientists and managers gather data fast enough to enable timely assessment of the implications of these changes.

The ConversationWhen monitoring wildlife, increasing the accuracy and precision of animal surveys gives us more confidence in our population estimates. This provides a stronger evidence base on which to make management decisions or policy changes. For species and ecosystems threatened with extinction or irreparable damage, such speedy action could be a literal lifeline.

Jarrod Hodgson, PhD Candidate, University of Adelaide; Aleks Terauds, Senior Research Scientist / Section Head, and Lian Pin Koh, Professor, University of Adelaide

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