Heatwaves have killed more Australians than any other form of natural disaster. Although there are now signs extreme weather patterns are being taken more seriously, is enough being done – or will more vulnerable people die?
SUFFERING THROUGH A scorching summer’s day is, quite literally, an act of patriotism. Last year, a group of academics from Macquarie University published a study examining extreme heat (meaning unusually hot weather for that location) in Australia from 1844 to 2010. They discovered that more people had died from the heat on 27 January than any other date, and suggested this was probably due to the aftermath of boozy Australia Day barbecues in the sun.
It says a lot about Australians’ attitude to hot weather. At the peak of summer, Australians gather in the sun, cook over coals, and then drink diuretic beverages, pissing away every last drop of deference to the climate.
Ironically, this ‘she’ll be right’ approach has helped make heatwaves Australia’s deadliest natural disaster. The same study found that since 1900 extreme heat has been responsible for 4555 deaths in Australia – more than for all the floods, cyclones, bushfires, lightning strikes, earthquakes, tornados, storms and landslides combined.
But if heatwaves are so dangerous, why aren’t they taken more seriously? One answer is they don’t create dramatic news footage. Bushfires roar through regional towns, leaving poignant relics (a single surviving chimney, a melted playground slide). Cyclones pick up expensive belongings and drop them in strange locations (yachts on school ovals). Floods inundate bustling city centres (water lapping traffic lights).
But when a heatwave hits, the best the media can hope for is some sticky asphalt. Without decent disaster footage, newsmakers resort to summery images of crowded beaches and kids playing under sprinklers, sending the message that extremely hot weather is benign fun, a chance to play outdoors.
Another answer is that many victims of heatwaves tend to be the elderly, the poor and the mentally ill – people society often ignores. In 1995, Chicago sweltered under a week of unusually hot weather, which contributed to approximately 740 deaths. Reporting on the disaster in his book Heat Wave, American sociologist Eric Klinenberg wrote that heatwaves are “silent and invisible killers of silenced and invisible people”. Risk factors include old age, living alone, having pre-existing medical conditions or a history of substance abuse or mental illness, low socio-economic status and homelessness.
What’s more, CSIRO research shows that poorer suburbs tend to be hotter because they have less greenery to give shade and cool the air. Thermal infrared maps, for example, display higher land surface temperatures in Melbourne’s outer west and in Adelaide’s outer northwest, both areas of relative socio-economic disadvantage.
But now there are signs that attitudes to heatwaves are changing. Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, Western Australia and South Australia have heatwave plans, which cover preparation and emergency response. Most feature health alert systems: when a temperature threshold is crossed, advice is sent to government departments, hospitals and emergency services to get ready and to communicate the dangers to the public. And most state agencies also have online advice for coping with hot weather. The New South Wales Government has even released a urine colour chart so that people can check if they’re dehydrated. (If pee comes out Simpsons-yellow, it’s time to “drink a large bottle of water immediately”.)
Crucially, these plans identify disadvantaged groups. In South Australia, the Red Cross has a register so it can phone people who are isolated, elderly, mentally ill or disabled and check on their health. Some local councils directly assist the vulnerable. As part of its heatwaves plan, the City of Melbourne gives pool and movie passes to homeless people so they use those facilities to cool down.
For the first time, the Bureau of Meteorology now has a national heatwave forecasting service. Launched as a pilot service in January 2014, it shows maps of Australia representing a three-day period, with shades of yellow, orange and red to indicate the severity of heatwave conditions. The national director for the project, Dr John Nairn, based in Adelaide, says the impetus for the forecasts was the incidence of more severe heatwaves in recent years. “I began the research myself in 2006, but the demand became raucous in 2009.”
That demand is likely to become even louder. David Karoly, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Melbourne, says climate change is already influencing the frequency and severity of heatwaves in Australia.
Climate scientists have been reluctant to attribute individual weather events to global warming, but in the case of heatwaves, the signal is now clear enough to make that call. In September last year, the scientific journal Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society published a series of studies on Australia’s blisteringly hot temperatures in 2013. Karoly says: “What that showed was that climate change was a major factor in the record summer temperatures of 2012–2013 across the whole of Australia, and it is already doubling the frequency of heatwaves, compared to a climate system without any human influences.”
The upshot is that more frequent, hotter and longer heatwaves can be expected in the near future. On top of that, the summer season will be extended, so heatwaves could arrive much sooner or later than previously.
Is enough being done to tackle this threat? Karoly believes short-term emergency responses have improved. But long-term planning, in terms of upgrading infrastructure and buildings to cope with the expected hotter summers, is sorely lacking.
Bill McKenzie, a 63-year-old resident of a government-housing complex in Port Melbourne, highlights the difference between these short- and long-term responses. Sitting at a table in his small apartment on the eighth floor, he produces a ‘heatwave pack’ sent to him by a local council and community group. It contains a hand fan, a neck cooling wrap, a fridge magnet with temperature gauge, a sheet of paper explaining how to “beat the heat” and a bottle of water.
While a nice gesture, the pack only alleviates the symptoms. McKenzie really wants someone to tackle the cause of the discomfort: the way the building heats up in the first place. McKenzie points to a thermometer in the corridor outside his apartment. At 4pm on 17 January last year, as Melbourne sweltered through one of southeast Australia’s worst heatwaves, the thermometer read 43°C – hotter than it was outside. In fact, from 12.30pm on 14 January to 1am on 18 January, the temperature in the corridor didn’t drop below 30°C, he says.
McKenzie blames the stiflingly hot conditions on building design and recent renovations. A north-facing glass atrium on the ground floor acts like a magnifying glass, he suggests, heating up the core of the building via the lift lobby. Meanwhile, in 2013 all windows were fitted with metal stops to prevent them opening more than 12.5cm. (The Department of Human Services says the restrictions were put in place to stop objects falling or being thrown out the window. But they also reduce airflow.)
Thousands live in housing similarly ill-equipped to cope with heatwaves. The Australian Council of Social Service has called on governments to address the problem by setting minimum energy efficiency standards for rental properties and retrofitting the worst performing and highest risk social housing stock. Other experts say there is also a need to reduce reliance on air conditioners, which offer no relief if there’s a heat- induced blackout.
Until these changes happen, the death toll from heatwaves can be expected to rise in step with their increasing frequency and severity, overshadowing all other natural disasters. For those at risk, summer has become a source of great anxiety.
In his high-rise apartment, McKenzie describes the dread felt by his fellow residents: “On those really hot days, people worry about whether somebody will be dead by next morning.”
First published in The Big Issue.