Hot as Hell in Oz

With winter snow in the northern hemisphere, we tend to forget the heat that summer brings to the southern half of the world. It can get pretty hot down there. The Guardian reports that Australia is entering the third day of another terrible heat wave, remarkable not just for how hot it is, but how much of the country it covers: basically, all of it.

This is the second killer heat wave to sweep across Australia this year. The memory is fresh of the scorching heat in early January, now it’s back with even more of a vengeance.

On this particular issue, the science is in and it’s clear. Heat waves in Australia are getting more frequent, lasting longer, and getting hotter. This for a continent that’s already a pretty hot place, covered with extensive desert. A country on the brink of heat excess, is plunging in with worrisome speed.

The science is also in, and clear, that the heat waves take a tremendous health toll. The increase in mortality (that means death) during these events is alarming, as are hospital admissions, and only those in deep denial even try to deny it.

I went and got the ACORN data for long-term temperature records in Australia, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology’s best long-term temperature data sets. The first station in their list is the Hills Creek Meteorological Office, and here is their daily high temperature since 1910:

The daily high temperature ranged from 10.7°C (51.3°F) to 44.9°C (112.8°F). It can get very hot.

The time series of average temperature confirms warming at this location, and points to a clear difference between the data before and afeter the year 1985. So, I made histograms of the temperature distributions for those two time spans:

It’s clear that all temperature above 35°C got more likely, and almost all temperatures below that value got less likely. Not only do we have overall warming, we have exactly the kind of notable difference at the extremes (i.e., the hottest temperatures) that makes climate change make heat waves into monsters.

Another way to show this is to use, not the probability density function (pdf, as approximated by a histogram), but the survival functions. It’s the chance of temperature being that high or higher, for all possible values:

Again, the difference is obvious, with high temperatures more likely since 1985 than they were before. An advantage of the survival function is that one can compute reliable probable errors, which easily confirm that the difference is both sizeable and statistically significant.

Yes, heat waves in Australia are getting hotter, happening more often, and lasting longer. Yes, the toll in human life and health dwarfs the economic losses, a huge as those might be.

Australia is vulnerable to heat waves. We can help her, if we all do our best to limit future warming by eliminating carbon emissions. If we don’t, if the worst-case scenarios play out, I dread the heat waves that will plague our brothers and sisters down under.

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29 responses to “Hot as Hell in Oz

  1. Theologically speaking, Dante’s lowest (9th) level of Hell wasn’t, actually, hot at all. Generally speaking, we take his word for it!

    I took a geology field trip into the Outback (Kimberlies) in 1976, and it was too hot then (one day) to think straight, so I can sort of imagine how miserable it is now.

    • Yes, the punishments are arranged by allegorical meaning, not temperature.

      FWIW, circles involving temperature-related torments are:

      –3rd (ceaseless foul, icy rain)
      –6th (entrapment in flaming tombs)
      –7th, rings 1 (immersion in a river of boiling blood and fire) and 3 (flakes of flame falling slowly down from the sky)
      –8th, trenches 3 (fire applied to the soles of the feet), 5 (immersion in boiling pitch), 7 (occasional spontaneous combustion), and 8 (permanent envelopment in flame)
      –finally, the entire 9th circle consists of an enormous lake of ice into which sinners are eternally frozen in varying degrees.

      But no, Dante’s account has not been verified. Probably the ‘dark wood’ that was his entry point has been bulldozed for a parking lot by now. It isn’t only Paradise that gets paved.

    • So much for “settled science”. Climate science can’t even decide if Hell is hot or cold.

      Here’s a /sarc if needed.

  2. It sure is hot here. Roads are melting:
    Centenarian-aged native river fish dying en mass:
    WRT the fish kill, folks are blaming all sorts of factors but it’s interesting to note that both mass kill events this year have happen during heat waves. The second event is just starting.
    And, good news (not), the BoM tells us that the heatwave hasn’t peaked yet.

  3. Enough to make a hardened farmer, used to making a living in the world’s hardiest conditions, cry:

  4. Probably not a good idea to use Halls Ck, there is a reason no one (it’s a very small place and yes I have been there) lives there, it would be akin to using Death Valley as an ‘example’ in the USA, perfectly legitimate but crisitism will be inevitable.

    Australia is hot in summer but indeed getting worse, the heat the lesser of the problem, less water is the much much bigger issue but heat also has lots of other impacts aside from people staying in their AC and making it worse , for example

    I lived in far northern Australia for four decades but left a decade ago as it was getting worse. As Dr. Perkins Kirkpatrick points out,

    anywhere from Brisbane North will probably become unlivable in the decades ahead and Professor David Griggs notes,

    “Australia is in denial about climate change” .

    “Australians will have to adapt or die,” he said.

    • Halls Creek is positively frigid compared to Marble Bar. Marble Bar hasn’t had a maximum daily temperature under 40 C since 17th December last year. The hottest it got in that time was 49.1 C on Boxing Day last year.

      When we used to use Fahrenheit, Marble Bar had the dubious distinction of setting a world record of most consecutive days of 100 °F (37.8 °C) or above, during a period of 160 days from 31 October 1923 to 7 April 1924,_Western_Australia

  5. There is a Halls Creek in NSW as well as WA.
    There are no links, so I will guess you are referring to WA.
    The hottest temperature recorded at that station was 8 Nov 1988 of 45 C.
    That station’s recording only seems to go back to 1945.

  6. And inland it is getting hotter very quickly. Canberra, where I live, has had the annual average maximum temperature warming at 0.6 degrees per decade since the late 1990s. I picked the late 1990s because my analysis suggests that there was a significant change in the magnitude of warming around that time. Canberra itself is a leader in renewable energy, but the Australian government is basically a bunch of deniers. In some ways, Australia deserves what we are going to get by voting the way we have. But, obviously, the young people – and the animals – who are going to have to live with the worst impacts for the longest did not really get too much of a chance to influence politics …

  7. One big issue is that most of Australia’s wealth comes form mining – typically in the very hot areas… This will be huge issue for our economy in the coming years.
    Also, living in Perth, we seem to have missed this nasty heatwave. For whatever reason the heatwaves Perth suffers seem to be out of synch with heatwaves in the rest of Aus.

  8. I suggest renaming Australia to “southern scorched territory”.

    “southern”, becauses that leaves us with the option to similarly rename some area in the northern hemisphere when needed (and the need will arise eventually).

  9. Thanks for this Tamino. I had thought to bring Australia’s record heat summer to your attention but obviously there was no need. On top of it as usual.

    On the political side of things, our current conservative national Government seems to be unduly influenced by the fossil fuel industry IMHO. It consistently does the minimum it can get away with regarding curbing CO2 emissions. But an increasing number of conservative groups (eg the National Farmers Federation are calling for stronger action on Climate Change, and polls are saying that even a majority of their usual voters want action on Climate Change. Then we have a record hot summer. The signs are that unless they make a radical change of policy direction on Climate Change action then they will no longer be in Government after the next election in 6 months (for other reasons as well). And there will be a lot of public support for good emission control strategies by their replacement.

    On the non-statistical side of things, a number of events this summer have clearly broken records:
    – hot and dry conditions in the lead up to summer led to extensive wild fires in the WINTER beforehand. That is NOT normal!
    – when rain forest (the name tells you it normally has a lot of rain!) gets burned in a wild fire, that is NOT normal
    – the century old fish killed in recent mass fish kills have obviously managed to survive many previous droughts. But that could also be related to upstream users taking too much water, even if the drought and heat wave are also major factors

    On the statistical side of things, with an element of politics thrown in, the thought occurs as to what data is publicly available about official government warnings. Most Australian States have legislation for proclaiming high fire risk days as a day of “Total Fire Ban”. Where public use of fire outdoors is prohibited, so no camp fires for instance. And use of some farm and other machinery may also be prohibited due to risks of sparks. There may need to be some care taken in case the criteria for triggering a Fire Ban has changed over time. But an increase in Fire Ban days would show not just the Climate Changing, but obvious human impacts (more days when our activities are restricted). And at the following site various districts are regularly given a fire risk rating from low-catastrophic. If the data could be obtained then it may also show a statistical trend in the various risk ratings?

    Thanks again for your work Tamino. From an Australian regular reader.

  10. If you have to live in Australia then the best part seems to be Tasmania.

    • And Melbourne – while it gets very hot in Melbourne it does not stay hot. I live in Perth, which has thus far had a lovely mild summer, although we do have 39 and 40 forecast for the weekend. Perth has had several mild summers that seem (to me) to be due to a blob of cooler ocean off the coast. I’m in fear of the summer where the ocean pattern changes…

    • Darwin certainly thought so. At one point he considered emigrating.

    • Not necessarily Raymond. The change in climate in Tasmania has already been dramatic, but the pressing issue is not so much the extreme maximum temperatures themselves. Rainfall patterns are shifting and are projected to shift further, and combined with changes in soil moisture and humidity there will be a profound consequence…

      Of special note is the increasing wetter winters/springs in the west/south-west, with drier summers. The result is greater early-season growth that becomes tinder-dry in summer, with consequent vulnerability to wildfire. One of the first things that leapt out at me from the Tasmanian Climate Futures work around 2011 was the implied vulnerability of the South West Wilderness World Heritage Area to permanent alteration by fire. Since then there have been two notable large-scale blazes in that region, several decades before I expected to see such, and at this rate much of the cool temperate rainforest will be open bushland, grassland, or heathland by the end of the century.

      Ecosystem shifts aside, the pattern of human habitation in the state is such that fire in these forests can rapidly spread to threaten wide swathes of the population on the hot summer days were temperatures reach the high 30s, humidity drops below 40%, and nor’westerly winds come from the hot centre of Australia at 60-80 km/h or more. Given that it’s nearly all eucalypt association of one type or another, the place becomes an explosive tinderbox. With the predictable increase in the confluence of extreme temperature, humidity, and wind parameters it is inevitable that severe bushfire will become more common, and that there will be serious loss of life and biodiversity in the coming decades…

      • To expand on my previous post a little, the thing that makes Tasmania as potential disaster zone in summer is the heat that is depicted in the graphic at the top of the page. When it brews in this fashion it is fairly often blown off the mainland and onto Tasmania by the nor’westers I mentioned before, so by the time the air mass reaches the island it’s had days or weeks to accumulate heat.

        It’s not the relatively (compared to the mainland) mild climate for the rest of the year that’s the problem, it’s this extreme pattern of summer heat movement that smacks Tasmania around. Combined with the rain shadow over the eastern two thirds of the state, it can become impossible to manage in a conflagration – there’s a small population, a lot of fuel, not many fire-fighting resources, and little warning of impending disaster.

  11. I was going to post this a day or so ago on First Dog on the Moon’s page here:

    but I missed the close of comments by about a minute. I might as well park it here for anyone interested in my rumination…


    These Australian ecosystems are now effectively committed to extinction:

    1) the Great Barrier Reef
    2) the Murray-Darling basin (multiple distinct ecosystem types)
    3) the Tasmanian kelp forests
    4) the Tasmanian Southwest Wilderness World Heritage Area
    5) the Southern Alps alpine area
    6) the Great Dividing Range’s Gondwanan nothofagus association remnants
    7) the Spencer Gulf seagrass meadows
    8) West Australian shrublands
    9) significant proportions of the NSW and Queensland rainforests
    10) Victorian mountain ash forests

    This is just a sampling – there are many more Australian ecosystems that are pretty much going to be lost over the coming decades and centuries, and primarily to the direct impacts of climate change, and/or from climate change’s syngergy with other human impacts on the environment.

    Basically, humans are going to wilfully and with disregard for the consequences destroy the essential character of much of Australia’s ecology, and usher in the extinction of many further species in addition to what has been a catastrophic history of extinction since European colonisation. We’ve been told ad nauseum by biologists and ecologists for fifty years already, and more, that this is happening and we blithely ignore the science because “it’s the money stupid.” The destruction of our biological heritage is going to bite our nation on the collective bum when our population learns the hard way that humans are not divorced from nature, and that the laws of physics that will inexorably impinge on our life support systems.

    Grab your ankles and assume the crash postion everyone, because it’s going to be a hard landing. And don’t you dare – ever – to say that you weren’t told…

  12. Timothy (likes zebras)

    “..if the worst-case scenarios play out, I dread the heat waves that will plague our brothers and sisters down under.”

    This map suggests that in a worst case scenario Australia would gain an inland sea, which you would expect would act as a moderating influence on heat waves.

    • And whilst Australia waits the centuries for that amount of sea level to catch up and form those inland seas there will be lots more droughts and extreme heatwaves.

    • Yeah there was an inland sea, but the future one will be super salty, like the Dead Sea.

  13. A ‘positive’ negative climate change feedback? If it’s hot enough, you don’t need to run the oven to do the baking! No ghg emissions, who needs power?