Signs of things to come: Salinger on Australian heatwaves

Climate change is happening now and Australia is in the firing line says Jim Salinger in this guest post. This article first appeared in the Dominion Post.

As I watch from my summer subtropical perch in Brisbane, Queensland, the somewhat unprecedented rains that deluged parts of Australia during the summer of 2010/11 have been replaced by sizzling heat waves this summer. These raise some pertinent lessons on climate and risk management for New Zealand. Firstly let’s look at some figures and ask the question of what are the climate mechanisms behind the heat waves.

For December 2011 the Bureau of Meteorology figures show that the highest temperatures of the year occurred in the third Australian heat wave of the year. This affected the Pilbara region in the north west of Western Australia. Multiple sites broke the previous Western Australian December record of 48.8ºC on December 26, 1986 with Roebourne recording 49.4ºC on December 21, Onslow Airport recording 49.2ºC on the 22nd and Learmonth 48.9ºC on the 23rd. Roebourne’s 49.4ºC was the highest temperature recorded in Australia since 1998.

This month incessant heat has struck the interior with daytime highs soaring to the mid forties. As I pen this there are a few more days of this heat wave left with temperatures averaging between 35ºC and 40ºC in central Australia. Places have been recording daily lows of 30ºC and daily highs of close to 45ºC. Mean temperatures have been running over 6ºC above average.

Meteorologists measure the warmth of the air lying above one spot as the 500 – 1000 hPa thickness. The “thickness” is a measure of how warm or cold a layer of the atmosphere is. High values mean warm air, and low values mean cold air. Summer 500 – 1000 hPa thickness values lie between 5600 and 5700 metres over Australia. It was values of around 5760 metres that brought New Zealand’s highest temperatures in the low forties in February 1973.

And what has been happening in late December and early January? An incredibly hot blob of air has sat over parts of inland Australia with thickness values of 5850 metres or more.

It is a simple law of physics that with more greenhouse gases in a layer of atmosphere the warmer surface temperatures get. Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide now are at 392 parts per million compared with 280ppm in 1750. This means that the lower atmosphere is thicker and retains more warmth, as more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere traps extra heat. The consequence is that global warming leads to an increase in the magnitude and incidence of heat waves.

The first lesson from the sizzling continental heat wave is that global warming has arrived for some time now, and the climate has warmed. Global warming is no longer a theory based on abstract calculations of what the climate is very likely to do in future decades. In 2007 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded: “It is very likely that hot extremes, heat waves and heavy precipitation events will continue to become more frequent.”

The second lesson – the canary in the coal mine – is that because of global warming the frequency of these extreme weather events is only going to increase. Thus the century old high temperature extremes are going to be exceeded more often in the future.

The third lesson is that there needs to be better preparation for these events by civil society. Heat waves can have debilitating effects on the elderly who are not so healthy. The 2003 European heat wave caused at least 40,000 deaths and the 2010 western Russian heat wave 55,000 deaths. Heat waves also increase the fire risk when there is little rain, as occurred in the Black Saturday heat wave and bushfires on 2 February 200 in Victoria.

At least New Zealand is the lucky country in this respect surrounded by oceans which dampen down any high temperatures. However NIWA future climate scenarios show a large increase in days above 30 and 35ºC in eastern districts with more frequent very hot nor’westers as the 21st century progresses.

Global warming is here, now and not a phenomenon for future generations to deal with. We must embark on a course of emissions reductions targets as soon as possible, to claw back rapidly rising greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere. If we do not act now the severity of such heat waves and the subsequent damage to life and property will increase. There is no time like the present to invest in our future wellbeing.

Jim Salinger is spending the southern summer at the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility at Griffiths University, Queensland as a visiting research fellow.

2 thoughts on “Signs of things to come: Salinger on Australian heatwaves”

  1. Um, they personally stand to make a lot of money? Always seems incredibly short-sighted to me. Money won’t protect one from the lynch-mobs that will inevitably spring up should the worst come to pass. People will want someone to blame, and who better than those responsible?

    Look back at history Carol, it’s always been the same – those in power become so giddy with their success they think the magic will last forever. Of course we know it ain’t magic, and therefore cannot last. But you try to convince these numpties otherwise.

    Sorry about your lawn too. We get that here in the North during El Nino. The inexorable intensification of El Nino/La Nina isn’t going to be pretty. If we get a big El Nino this year we’ll see: a big jump in sea level rise, mass coral bleaching, drought in the Amazon and some severe drought in many parts of the world. Atmospheric CO2 will jump up a little too. Many of the tropical land basins dry out during El Nino, which leads to a ‘speed-bump’ in sea level rise, and the death of a lot of vegetation – hence the uptick in global atmospheric CO2. It’s normally only very small, but……..

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