Weather bureau says hottest, driest year on record led to extreme bushfire season



It’s the first time since overlapping records began that Australia experienced both its lowest rainfall and highest temperatures in the same year.
dan HIMBRECHTS/AAP

David Jones, Australian Bureau of Meteorology; Karl Braganza, Australian Bureau of Meteorology, and Skie Tobin, Australian Bureau of Meteorology

The Bureau of Meteorology’s annual climate statement released today confirms 2019 was the nation’s warmest and driest year on record. It’s the first time since overlapping records began that Australia experienced both its lowest rainfall and highest temperatures in the same year.

The national rainfall total was 37mm, or 11.7%, below the 314.5 mm recorded in the previous driest year in 1902. The national average temperature was nearly 0.2°C above the previous warmest year in 2013.

Globally, 2019 is likely to be the second-warmest year, with global temperatures about 0.8 °C above the 1961–1990 average. It has been the warmest year without the influence of El Niño.

Across the year, Australia experienced many extreme events including flooding in Queensland and large hail in New South Wales. However, due to prolonged heat and drought, the year began and ended with fires burning across the Australian landscape.




Read more:
‘This crisis has been unfolding for years’: 4 photos of Australia from space, before and after the bushfires


Part of Menindee Lakes on the Darling River, which is under pressure from low water flow as a result of the prolonged drought.
Dean Lewins/AAP

The effect of the long dry

Bushfire activity for the 2018–19 season began in late November 2018, when fires burned along a 600km stretch of the central Queensland coast. Widespread fires later followed across Victoria and Tasmania throughout the summer.

Persistent drought and record temperatures were a major driver of the fire activity, and the context for 2019 lies in the past three years of drought.

The dry conditions steadily worsened over 2019, resulting in Australia’s driest year on record, with area-average rainfall of just 277.6mm (the 1961–1990 average is 465.2 mm).



Almost the entire continent experienced rainfall in the lowest 10th percentile over the year.

Record low rainfall affected the central and southern inland regions of the continent and the north-eastern Murray–Darling Basin straddling the NSW and Queensland border. Many weather stations over central parts of Australia received less than 30mm of rainfall for the year.

Every capital city recorded below average annual rainfall. For the first time, national rainfall was below average in every month.



Record heat dominates the nation

2019 was Australia’s warmest year on record, with the annual mean temperature 1.52°C above the 1961–1990 average, surpassing the previous record of 1.33°C above average in 2013.

January, February, March, April, July, October, November, and December were all amongst the ten warmest on record for Australian mean temperature for their respective months, with January and December exceeding their previous records by 0.98°C and 1.08°C respectively.

Maximum temperatures recorded an even larger departure from average of +2.09°C for the year. This is the first time the nation has seen an anomaly of more than 2 °C, and about half a degree warmer than the previous record in 2013.



The year brought the nation’s six hottest days on record peaking at 41.9°C
(December 18), the hottest week 40.5 °C (week ending December 24), hottest month 38.6 °C (December 2019), and hottest season 36.9 °C (summer 2018–19).

The highest temperature for the year was 49.9 °C at Nullarbor (a new national December record) on December 19 and the coldest temperature was –12.0°C at Perisher Valley on June 20.

Keith West in southeast South Australia recorded a maximum 49.2°C on December 20, while Dover in far southern Tasmania saw 40.1°C on March 2, the furthest south such high temperatures have been observed in Australia.

Accumulating fire danger over 2019

The combination of prolonged record heat and drought led to record fire weather over large areas throughout the year, with destructive bushfires affecting all states, and multiple states at once in the final week of the year.

Many fires were difficult to contain in regions where drought has been severe, such as northern NSW and southeast Queensland, or where below average rainfall has been persistent, such as southeast Australia.

The Forest Fire Danger Index, a measure of fire weather severity, accumulated over the month of December was the highest on record for that month, and the highest for any month when averaged over the whole of Australia.



Record-high daily index values for December were recorded at the very end of December around Adelaide and the Yorke Peninsula in South Australia, East Gippsland in Victoria and the Monaro in NSW. These regions which experienced significant fire activity.

Don’t forget the floods

Amidst the dry, 2019 also included significant flooding across Queensland and the eastern Top End.

Heavy rain fell from January into early February, with damaging floods around Townsville and parts of the western Peninsula and Gulf Country.

Tropical cyclone Trevor brought further heavy rainfall in April in the eastern Northern Territory and Queensland. Floodwaters eventually reached Lake Eyre/Kati Thanda which, amidst severe local rainfall deficiencies in South Australia, experienced its most significant filling since 2010–11.

There was a notable absence of rainfall on Australia’s snow fields during winter and spring which meant less snow melt. Snow cover was generous, particularly at higher elevations.

A Townsville resident removes damaged items from a house after the Townsville floods in early 2019.
Dan Peled/AAP

What role did climate change play in 2019?

The climate each year reflects random variations in weather, slowly evolving natural climate drivers such as El Niño, and long-term trends through the influence of climate change.

A strong and long-lived positive Indian Ocean Dipole – another natural climate driver – affected Australia from May until the end of the year, and played a major role in suppressing rainfall and raising temperatures for much of the year.

Spring brought an unusual breakdown of the southern polar vortex which allowed westerly winds to affect mainland Australia. This reduced rainfall, raising temperature and contributing to the increased fire risk.

Climate change continues to cause long-term changes to Australia’s climate. Conditions in 2019 were consistent with trends of declining rainfall in parts of the south, worsening fire seasons and rising temperatures.




Read more:
Australia can expect far more fire catastrophes. A proper disaster plan is worth paying for


The Conversation


David Jones, Climate Scientist, Australian Bureau of Meteorology; Karl Braganza, Climate Scientist, Australian Bureau of Meteorology, and Skie Tobin, Climatologist, Australian Bureau of Meteorology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

What Australia can learn from Victoria’s shocking biodiversity record



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The endangered Brush-tailed Rock-wallaby is one of Victoria’s threatened species.
TARONGA ZOO/AAP

Geoffrey Wescott, Deakin University

Victoria is struggling with biodiversity conservation, according to a State of the Environment report tabled in parliament this week. While the scorecard is bleak – not one of the state’s key biodiversity indicators ranks as “good” – the report itself gives some hope.

For the first time the Commissioner for Environmental Sustainability, who prepared the report, offers proactive recommendations to the Victorian government for improving its performance, and has linked these goals to international sustainability targets. It’s an comprehensive and ambitious effort, and offers some good lessons to the rest of Australia.




Read more:
Australia among the world’s worst on biodiversity conservation


Alarming results

Victoria is the most densely populated state in Australia, the most cleared of native vegetation, and has the smallest percentage of public land.

The State of the Environment report uses a traffic light method to summarise the status, trend and data quality of 170 indicators spread over 12 scientific assessment areas (everything from general air and water quality to specific environments such as marine and coasts, plus issues such as waste and energy).

The indicators paint a picture that does not look good for biodiversity. None of these indicators are rated “good”; seven are “fair”, 21 “poor”, and seven “unknown”. In terms of trends, just one is improving, seven are stable, and 18 are deteriorating (nine are unclear).

National park declarations have slowed substantially on land in recent years – the first Andrews government (2014-18) was the first Victorian government in a quarter of a century not to increase national parks. Not a single additional marine area has been protected since 2002.

In contrast, conservation on private land is fair and trending upward according to the report card (probably largely due to the efforts of Trust for Nature). A substantial cash injection for the trust from Victoria’s rolling fund would likely see outsized results, although this is not a specific recommendation in the report.

The reports offers two critical recommendations for improving biodiversity:

  • increase private land conservation and invest in local government capability to enforce existing protective guidelines, and

  • appoint a Chief Biodiversity Scientist to counsel the Secretary and Environment Minister to improve the impact of biodiversity research.

Creating a Chief Biodiversity Scientist is a good starting point for an area that has received decreasing effort, over the past decade in particular. However, it must be only the first step in raising the lowly position of biodiversity conservation, not only in the environment department but across the entire government.

Beyond passive reporting

This years report moves beyond simply relaying data in two ways: first, with 20 specific recommendations to the government, and secondly by using the United Nation’s framework of environmental accounting to tie the report to the global Sustainable Development Goals.

The report claims this is the first attempt to apply the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals to a sub-national environmental report. Given the number of federated nations around the world (the United States, Brazil and Canada, for a start), putting the spotlight on state or provincial environmental responsibilities is a significant and laudable step.

In the more immediate future, the report gives the Victorian government 20 recommendations linked to the Sustainable Development Goals, across a range of categories: Traditional Owner leadership, climate change, air and water quality, land, forests, fire, marine and coastal environments, water resources, waste and resource recovery, energy, transport, and “megatrends”.

The 20 recommendations are solidly based on the findings across the 12 assessment areas. These show that only 11% of status indicators are “good”, whereas 32% are “poor”, with the trend demonstrating only 10% are improving, 30% stable and 30% deteriorating.




Read more:
Why biodiversity is key to our survival


While the State of the Environment report naturally focuses on Victoria, there are plenty of lessons and ideas here for the rest of the country.

Now the onus is firmly on the self-proclaimed “most progressive government in Australia” to act.The Conversation

Geoffrey Wescott, Honorary Research Fellow, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

2018-19 was Australia’s hottest summer on record, with a warm autumn likely too


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Dirty water from Queensland’s historic flooding, triggered by weeks of exceptional monsoon rains earlier in the year.
NASA Worldview/EPA

David Jones, Australian Bureau of Meteorology; Lynette Bettio, Australian Bureau of Meteorology, and Skie Tobin, Australian Bureau of Meteorology

Australian summers are getting hotter. Today marks the end of our warmest summer on record, setting new national temperature records. Worsening drought, locally significant flooding, damaging bushfires, and heatwaves capped a summer of extremes.

As we look to autumn, warmer temperatures overall and below average rainfall – especially in eastern parts of the country – are likely.

Australian summer mean temperature anomalies against the 1961–1990 average.
Bureau of Meteorology



Read more:
The stubborn high-pressure system behind Australia’s record heatwaves


Very hot…

The starkest feature of this summer was the record warmth. The national average temperature is expected to be about 2.1℃ above average, and will easily beat the previous record high set in summer 2012-13 (which was 1.28℃ warmer than average).

Very low rainfall accompanied the record heat of summer. At the national scale, each month was notably dry, and total summer rainfall was around 30% below average; the lowest for summer since 1982–83. The monsoon onset was delayed in Darwin until the 23rd of January (the latest since 1972–73) and typical monsoonal weather was absent for most of summer.

Preliminary summer 2018–19 mean temperature deciles.
Bureau of Meteorology

In December 2018 Australia saw its highest mean, maximum and minimum temperatures on record (monthly averages, compared to all other Decembers). Notable heatwaves affected the north of Australia at the start of the month, spreading to the west and south during the second half of December. Temperatures peaked at 49.3℃ at Marble Bar in Western Australia on the 27th, with mid-to-high 40s extending over larger areas.

The heat continued into January, which set a national monthly mean temperature record at 2.91℃ above the 1961–1990 average. Heatwave conditions which had emerged in December persisted, with a prolonged warm spell and numerous records set. Eight of the ten hottest days for the nation occurred during the month, while a minimum temperature of 36.6℃ at Wanaaring (Borrona Downs) in western New South Wales on the 26th set a new national minimum temperature record.

Temperatures moderated a little in the east of the country for February, partly in response to flooding rainfall in tropical Queensland. Even so, the national mean temperature will come in around 1.4℃ above average, making this February likely to be the fourth or fifth warmest on record.

…and very dry

Australia has seen dry summers before and many of these have been notably hot. The summers of 1972–73 and 1982–83 – which featured mean temperatures 0.90℃ and 0.92℃ above average, respectively – both came during the latter stages of significant droughts, and were both records at the time.

As the State of the Climate 2018 report outlines, Australia has warmed by just over 1℃ since 1910, with most warming occurring since 1950. This warming means global and Australian climate variability sits on top of a higher average temperature, which explains why 2018-19 was warmer again.

A major rain event affected tropical Queensland during late January to early February, associated with a slow-moving monsoonal low. Some sites had a year’s worth of rain in a two-week period, including Townsville Airport which had 1,257mm in ten days. Many Queenslanders affected by this monsoonal low went from drought conditions to floods in a matter of days. Flooding was severe and continues to affect rivers near the Gulf of Carpentaria, as well as some inland rivers which flow towards Kati Thanda–Lake Eyre.

Preliminary summer 2018–19 rainfall deciles.
Bureau of Meteorology

The outlook for autumn

Spring 2018 saw a positive Indian Ocean Dipole which faded in early summer. At the start of summer sea surface temperature anomalies in the central Pacific exceeded 0.8℃, which is the typical threshold for El Niño affecting the oceans, but these declined as summer progressed. Combined with a lack of coupling between the atmosphere and ocean, the El Niño–Southern Oscillation remained neutral, though normal rainfall patterns shifted to oceans to the north and east, leaving Australia drier as a result.

As we move into autumn, the El Niño–Southern Oscillation and Indian Ocean Dipole tend to have less influence at this time of year. The onset of new Indian Ocean Dipole or El Niño/La Niña events typically happens in late autumn or winter/spring.

Over recent years, autumn rainfall has also become less reliable, with declines in cool season rainfall in the southeast and southwest. Temperatures are also rising, in a local expression of the global warming trend.




Read more:
Explainer: El Niño and La Niña


The Bureau’s outlook for autumn shows high probabilities that day and night-time temperatures will remain above average for most of the country. We expect to see continued below-average rainfall in much of the east, where drought is currently widespread.

Looking to the winter, the Bureau’s ENSO Wrap-Up suggests the Pacific Ocean is likely to remain warmer than average. The potential for an El Niño remains, with approximately a 50% chance of El Niño developing during the southern hemisphere autumn or winter, twice the normal likelihood.

Rainfall outlook for autumn 2019.
Bureau of Meteorology


For more information watch BOM’s March–May 2019 Climate and Water Outlook video and subscribe to receive Climate Information emails.The Conversation

David Jones, Climate Scientist, Australian Bureau of Meteorology; Lynette Bettio, Senior Climatologist, Australian Bureau of Meteorology, and Skie Tobin, Climatologist, Australian Bureau of Meteorology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Fossil fuel emissions hit record high after unexpected growth: Global Carbon Budget 2017


Pep Canadell, CSIRO; Corinne Le Quéré, University of East Anglia; Glen Peters, Center for International Climate and Environment Research – Oslo; Robbie Andrew, Center for International Climate and Environment Research – Oslo; Rob Jackson, Stanford University, and Vanessa Haverd, CSIRO

Global greenhouse emissions from fossil fuels and industry are on track to grow by 2% in 2017, reaching a new record high of 37 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, according to the 2017 Global Carbon Budget, released today.

The rise follows a remarkable three-year period during which global CO₂ emissions barely grew, despite strong global economic growth.

But this year’s figures suggest that the keenly anticipated global peak in emissions – after which greenhouse emissions would ultimately begin to decline – has yet to arrive.


Read more: Fossil fuel emissions have stalled: Global Carbon Budget 2016


The Global Carbon Budget, now in its 12th year, brings together scientists and climate data from around the world to develop the most complete picture available of global greenhouse gas emissions.

In a series of three papers, the Global Carbon Project’s 2017 report card assesses changes in Earth’s sources and sinks of CO₂, both natural and human-induced. All excess CO₂ remaining in the atmosphere leads to global warming.

We believe society is unlikely to return to the high emissions growth rates of recent decades, given continued improvements in energy efficiency and rapid growth in low-carbon energies. Nevertheless, our results are a reminder that there is no room for complacency if we are to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, which calls for temperatures to be stabilised at “well below 2℃ above pre-industrial levels”. This requires net zero global emissions soon after 2050.

After a brief plateau, 2017’s emissions are forecast to hit a new high.
Global Carbon Project, Author provided

National trends

The most significant factor in the resumption of global emissions growth is the projected 3.5% increase in China’s emissions. This is the result of higher energy demand, particularly from the industrial sector, along with a decline in hydro power use because of below-average rainfall. China’s coal consumption grew by 3%, while oil (5%) and gas (12%) continued rising. The 2017 growth may result from economic stimulus from the Chinese government, and may not continue in the years ahead.

The United States and Europe, the second and third top emitters, continued their decade-long decline in emissions, but at a reduced pace in 2017.

For the US, the slowdown comes from a decline in the use of natural gas because of higher prices, with the loss of its market share taken by renewables and to a lesser extent coal. Importantly, 2017 will be the first time in five years that US coal consumption is projected to rise slightly (by about 0.5%).

The EU has now had three years (including 2017) with little or no decline in emissions, as declines in coal consumption have been offset by growth in oil and gas.

Unexpectedly, India’s CO₂ emissions will grow only about 2% this year, compared with an average 6% per year over the past decade. This reduced growth rate is likely to be short-lived, as it was linked to reduced exports, lower consumer demand, and a temporary fall in currency circulation attributable to demonetisation late in 2016.

Trends for the biggest emitters, and everyone else.
Global Carbon Project, Author provided

Yet despite this year’s uptick, economies are now decarbonising with a momentum that was difficult to imagine just a decade ago. There are now 22 countries, for example, for which CO₂ emissions have declined over the past decade while their economies have continued to grow.

Concerns have been raised in the past about countries simply moving their emissions outside their borders. But since 2007, the total emissions outsourced by countries with emissions targets under the Kyoto Protocol (that is, developed countries, including the US) has declined.

This suggests that the downward trends in emissions of the past decade are driven by real changes to economies and energy systems, and not just to offshoring emissions.

Other countries, such as Russia, Mexico, Japan, and Australia have shown more recent signs of slowdowns, flat growth, and somewhat volatile emissions trajectories as they pursue a range of different climate and energy policies in recent years.

Still, the pressure is on. In 101 countries, representing 50% of global CO₂ emissions, emissions increased as economies grew. Many of these countries will be pursuing economic development for years to come.

Contrasting fortunes among some of the world’s biggest economies.
Nigel Hawtin/Future Earth Media Lab/Global Carbon Project, Author provided

A peek into the future

During the three-year emissions “plateau” – and specifically in 2015-16 – the accumulation of CO₂ in the atmosphere grew at a record high that had not previously been observed in the half-century for which measurements exist.

It is well known that during El Niño years such as 2015-16, when global temperatures are higher, the capacity of terrestrial ecosystems to take up CO₂ (the “land sink”) diminishes, and atmospheric CO₂ growth increases as a result.

The El Niño boosted temperatures by roughly a further 0.2℃. Combined with record high levels of fossil fuel emissions, the atmospheric CO₂ concentration grew at a record rate of nearly 3 parts per million per year.

This event illustrates the sensitivity of natural systems to global warming. Although a hot El Niño might not be the same as a sustained warmer climate, it nevertheless serves as a warning of the global warming in store, and underscores the importance of continuing to monitor changes in the Earth system.

The effect of the strong 2015-16 El Niño on the growth of atmospheric CO₂ can clearly be seen.
Nigel Hawtin/Future Earth Media Lab/Global Carbon Project, based on Peters et al., Nature Climate Change 2017, Author provided

No room for complacency

There is no doubt that progress has been made in decoupling economic activity from CO₂ emissions. A number of central and northern European countries and the US have shown how it is indeed possible to grow an economy while reducing emissions.

Other positive signs from our analysis include the 14% per year growth of global renewable energy (largely solar and wind) – albeit from a low base – and the fact that global coal consumption is still below its 2014 peak.


Read more: World greenhouse gas levels made unprecedented leap in 2016


These trends, and the resolute commitment of many countries to make the Paris Agreement a success, suggest that CO₂ emissions may not return to the high-growth rates experienced in the 2000s. However, an actual decline in global emissions might still be beyond our immediate reach, especially given projections for stronger economic growth in 2018.

The ConversationTo stabilise our climate at well below 2℃ of global warming, the elusive peak in global emissions needs to be reached as soon as possible, before quickly setting into motion the great decline in emissions needed to reach zero net emissions by around 2050.

Pep Canadell, CSIRO Scientist, and Executive Director of the Global Carbon Project, CSIRO; Corinne Le Quéré, Professor, Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, University of East Anglia; Glen Peters, Research Director, Center for International Climate and Environment Research – Oslo; Robbie Andrew, Senior Researcher, Center for International Climate and Environment Research – Oslo; Rob Jackson, Chair, Department of Earth System Science, and Chair of the Global Carbon Project, globalcarbonproject.org, Stanford University, and Vanessa Haverd, Senior research scientist, CSIRO

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

2017 is set to be among the three hottest years on record


Andrew King, University of Melbourne and David Karoly, University of Melbourne

The year isn’t over yet, but we can already be sure that 2017 will be among the hottest years on record for the globe. While the global average surface temperature won’t match what we saw in 2016, it is now very likely that it will be one of the three warmest years on record, according to a statement issued by the World Meteorological Organization.

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What is more remarkable is that this year’s warmth comes without a boost from El Niño. When an El Niño brings warm waters to the tropical east Pacific, we see a transfer of heat from the ocean to the lower atmosphere, which can raise the global average temperatures recorded at the surface by an extra 0.1-0.2℃. But this year’s temperatures have been high even in the absence of this phenomenon.


Read more: Why hot weather records continue to tumble worldwide


We can already say with confidence that 2017 will end up being the warmest non-El Niño year on record, and that it will be warmer than any year before 2015. The average global temperature between January to September this year was roughly 1.1℃ warmer than the pre-industrial average.

This trend is associated with increased greenhouse gas concentrations, and this year we have seen record high global atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations and the biggest recorded surge in CO₂ levels.

A year of extremes

Of course, none of us experiences the global average temperature, so we also care about local extreme weather. This year has already seen plenty of extremes.

Global sea ice extent continues to decline.
NASA Earth Observatory

At the poles we’ve seen a continuation of the global trend towards reduced sea ice extent. On February 13, global sea ice extent reached its lowest point on record, amid a record low winter for Arctic ice. Since then the Arctic sea ice extent has become less unusual but it still remains well below the satellite-era average. Antarctic sea ice extent also remains low but is no longer at record low levels as it was in February and March of this year.

East Africa saw continued drought with failure of the long rains, coupled with political instability, leading to food insecurity and population displacement, particularly in Somalia.

Storms and fires

This year also saw a very active North Atlantic hurricane season. Parts of the southern United States and the Caribbean were struck by major hurricanes such as Harvey, Irma, and Maria, and are still recovering from the effects.

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Other parts of the globe have seen a quieter year for tropical cyclones.

There have also been several notable wildfire outbreaks around the world this year. In Western Europe, record June heat and very dry conditions gave rise to severe fires in Portugal. This was followed by more severe fires across Spain and Portugal in October.


Read more: Wildfires are raging in the Mediterranean. What can we learn?


Parts of California also experienced severe fires following a wet winter, which promoted plant growth, and then a hot dry summer.

Australia is now gearing up for what is forecast to be a worse-than-average fire season after record winter daytime temperatures. A potential La Niña forming in the Pacific and recent rains in eastern Australia may reduce some of the bushfire risk.

The overall message

So what conclusions can we draw from this year’s extreme weather? It’s certainly clear that humans are warming the climate and increasing the chances of some of the extreme weather we’ve seem in 2017. In particular, many of this year’s heatwaves and hot spells have already been linked to human-caused climate change.

For other events the human influence is harder to determine. For example, the human fingerprint on East Africa’s drought is uncertain. It is also hard to say exactly how climate change is influencing tropical cyclones, beyond the fact that their impact is likely to be made worse by rising sea levels.

The ConversationFor much of 2017’s extreme weather, however, we can say that it is an indicator of what’s to come.

Andrew King, Climate Extremes Research Fellow, University of Melbourne and David Karoly, Professor of Atmospheric Science, University of Melbourne

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

2016 crowned hottest year on record: Australia needs to get heat smart


Liz Hanna, Australian National University; Kathryn Bowen, Australian National University, and Mark Howden, Australian National University

It’s official, 2016 set another record for being the world’s hottest. Three international agencies have confirmed today that last year was the hottest on record.

NASA reported that 2016 was 0.99℃ hotter than the 20th-century average, while the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) called it at 0.94℃. NOAA also calculated that global land temperatures were 1.43℃ higher. The UK Met Office, using its own data, also reported that 2016 is one of the two hottest years on record.

The figures vary slightly, depending on the baseline reference period used.

Heat records don’t linger for long any more. 2016 surpassed the 2015 record, which surpassed the 2014 record. Three record hot years in a row sets yet another record in the 137-year history of modern accurate and standardised meteorological observation.

For Australia, the Bureau of Meteorology described 2016 as a “year of extreme events” and the fourth hottest at 0.87℃ above the 1961-1990 average. The warming trend is clear.

Australia is already on average 8℃ hotter than the average global land temperature, so further warming means our heat risk is far greater than for other industrialised countries.

This dangerous warming trend sends a dire warning, as average warming delivers many more extreme heat events, as we’re currently seeing in Queensland and New South Wales. These are the killers.

As Australia lurches from heatwave to heatwave, the message is clear: extreme heat is the new norm – so Australia needs to get “heat smart”.

Rising extremes

In Australia the number of days per year over 35℃ has increased and extreme temperatures have increased on average at 7% per decade.

Very warm monthly maximum temperatures used to occur around 2% of the time during the period 1951–1980. During 2001–2015, these happened more than 11% of the time.

This trajectory of increased temperature extremes raises questions of how much heat can humans tolerate and still go about their daily business of commuting, managing domestic chores, working and keeping fit.

We can’t just get used to the heat

Air-conditioning and acclimatisation are not the answer. Acclimatisation to heat has an upper limit, beyond which humans need to rest or risk overheating and potential death. And air-conditioning, if not powered by renewable electricity, increases greenhouse gas emissions, feeding into further climate changes.

We have two key tasks ahead. The first is to stop the warming by drastically reducing emissions – the 2015 Paris Agreement was a step along this path. Several studies have shown that Australia can achieve net zero emissions by 2050 and live within its recommended carbon budget, using technologies that exist today, while maintaining economic prosperity.

Our second task is to adapt to the trajectory of increasing frequency of dangerous heat events.

A heat-smart nation

We can prevent heat-related deaths and illnesses through public health mechanisms. Australia enjoys a strong international track record of world-leading public health prevention strategies, such as our campaign against smoking.

We can equally embrace the heat challenge, by adopting initiatives such as a National Climate, Health and Wellbeing Strategy, which has the support of Australia’s health sector. Its recommendations outline a pathway to becoming a heat-smart nation.

At a recent heat-health summit in Melbourne, experts declared Australia must adopt four key public health actions to reduce heatwave deaths.

These are:

• Prevent

• Prepare

• Respond

• Educate.

These fundamental public health strategies are interlinked and operate at the government, health sector, industry and community levels.

Prevention includes reducing greenhouse gas emissions, as well as reducing exposure. The Bureau of Meteorology provides superb heat warnings that allow us to prepare. Global organisations such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) provide reports that can underpin greater understanding.

The next challenge is for the populace broadly to act on that knowledge. This requires having options to protect ourselves and avoid hazardous heat exposures while commuting, working and at home.

The health sector must also prepare for demand surges. Tragic outcomes will become increasingly common when, for example, ambulance services cannot meet rising demand from a combination of population growth, urbanisation and forecast heat events.

The health sector will need the capacity to mobilise extra resources, and a workforce trained in identifying and managing heat illness. Such training remains limited.

Individuals and workplaces also need to prepare for heatwaves. In a heat-smart nation, we’ll need to reschedule tasks to avoid or limit exposure, including rest periods, and to ensure adequate hydration with cool fluids.

We’ll need to think about housing. Building houses without eaves or space for trees to provide shade forces residents to rely on air-conditioning. In such houses, power failures expose residents to unnecessary heat risks, and many air-con systems struggle when temperatures exceed 40℃.

Urban planners and architects have solutions. There are many options for safe housing design, and the government should consider supporting such schemes.

We’ll need to think about our own health. Active transport, such as walking and cycling, both reduces emissions and improves fitness. Promoting active transport throughout summer requires the provision of shade, rest zones with seats, and watering stations along commuting routes. High cardio-respiratory fitness also boosts heat resilience: a win-win.

Ultimately, Australia has two options: ignore the risks of increasing heat extremes and suffer the consequences, or step up to the challenge and become a heat-smart nation.


This article was co-authored by Clare de Castella Mackay, ANU.

The Conversation

Liz Hanna, Honorary Senior Fellow, Australian National University; Kathryn Bowen, Senior Research Fellow, Australian National University, and Mark Howden, Director, Climate Change Institute, Australian National University

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