Much of inland Australia including large parts of NSW, Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia and Victoria are experiencing the first heatwave of summer in October, a month before the official start of the season. Temperature records tumbled, including the warmest October day on record with the national average maximum of 36.39 degrees Celsius on 25 October, according to the Bureau of Meteorology.
Heatwaves pose a major health risk and can disrupt work and operation of infrastructure such as electricity generation and transmission, with flow-on impacts on public transport and general delivery of services. But they also exacerbate fire weather conditions for bushfires. Each summer we fight the bushfires and count the cost in lives lost, properties damaged. Seldom do we count the public health and mortality cost of heatwaves, even though evidence shows many more people die from heat related events than any other natural disaster.
In 2009 the Victorian Black Saturday fires killed 173 people directly, but the associated heatwave caused 374 excess deaths. A recent study by Coates et al (2014) analysing mortality from extreme heat events in Australia from 1844 to 2010, found a lower bound estimate of 5332 heat associated deaths in Australia, about 55% of total deaths from natural hazards and by far eclipsing any other single hazard including floods, bushfire or tropical cyclone singly or combined.
The authors of this study conclude that “while public education and emergency management is important, long term risk reduction must also consider urban planning, building design, community development and social equity”.
So how well are we actually doing in both mitigating the long term impact of heatwaves and also short term education and climate adaptation?
— Sarah (@sarahinscience) October 14, 2014
If you believe the statement of Victorian Health Minister David Davis on 13 October 2014, we are actually doing quite well with only 167 heat related deaths in the January 2014 heatwave in Victoria, despite slightly more ambulance call-outs than in 2009.
It is evident that the heat alert system and warning messages have had some impact. But the day after the Minister’s statement the Victorian Auditor General’s Office had their report on Heatwave Management: Reducing the Risk to Public Health tabled in state parliament which put the Minister’s statement in context and showed it as the political spin it was.
The Victorian Auditor General’s report identified there were many critical gaps in heatwave emergency response management including: lack of clear governance arrangements with roles and responsibilities; variable quality of planning and preparedness; public health messages and warnings not always being well targeted; activation of heatwave plans was not well understood by agencies and applied inconsistently. While Victoria had a State Tsunami Emergency Plan and a State Earthquake Emergency Plan, there is no equivalent state-wide plan for heatwaves, despite heatwaves being a major natural hazard cause of death.
When there are multiple hazards affecting the community, such as combined bushfires and heatwave, this was where governance appeared to really fail: “There was no statewide, strategic view of the combined impact of the different emergencies.” the report states.
The Auditor General listed 8 major recommendations for agencies to help remedy the situation. I am sure implementation of these recommendations will assist, but they can only go so far with government’s at the Federal and State level taking minimal mitigation action against climate change and who have already failed with their oversight of implementing heatwave emergency response strategies to safeguard vulnerable citizens.
— Climate Act Moreland (@camoreland) October 15, 2014
A 2011 study by Accounting firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers identified there was a role for the Federal Government in national co-ordination of strategic plans for combatting and adapting to heatwaves and extreme heat events. But there has been little action to take up this challenge on the Federal level.
I live in Moreland, an inner northern municipality of Melbourne. A recent study by Loughnan et al (2013) assessed environmental, demographic and health characteristics producing a heat vulnerability index, then mapped the heat vulnerability of Melbourne and other Australian cities down to the postcode level. All of Moreland’s suburbs show up as high on the vulnerability index. (See Mapping Heatwave Vulnerability website for Australian capital cities)
Moreland Council has taken a pro-active approach calling for greater heatwave emergency planning for Victoria in February 2014. Being inner urban the municipality is particularly susceptible to heatwaves and the urban heat island effect amplified by climate change.
The City of Moreland Council has a heatwave plan in place and recently reassessed it’s heatwave strategy as well as recently endorsing tree planting program across the municipality to moderate the urban heat island effect.
The report prepared for Moreland Council also identified a lack of continued funding to local councils for process improvement in heatwave strategies and a lack of strategic co-ordination at the state level. In Victoria “a heatwave is not considered an emergency event under Victoria’s current emergency management framework and emergency provisions are not activated when a heat health alert is issued,” according to the consultant report.
With rising temperatures associated with climate change, heatwaves are going to intensify and be of longer extent and will start earlier and end later in the year. They require climate adaptation now but also significant mitigation to reduce their impact in the future.
Like the Federal Government lead by Tony Abbott, the Baillieu and Napthine Liberal National Government has been disengaging from climate action over it’s full period through a number of measures including: constraining wind farm development, abolishing energy efficiency, reducing solar feed-in tariff, eliminating state emission reduction targets, failing to set in place programs to upgrade housing energy efficiency. All of these actually increase the problem and place citizens at greater risk in future from extreme heat events as they increase in frequency and intensity with climate change. I discuss this in more detail in my article from April 2014 on The challenge of adapting to climate change and heatwaves in Melbourne which accompanied a slideshow presentation.
October heatwave across inland Australia
2013 was the hottest year on record for Australia according to the Bureau of Meteorology, with five separate research studies showing that Human hands all over Australia’s hottest ever year.
During October more than 20 weather stations set new temperature records. Broken Hill experienced 5 days in a row exceeding 35 degrees eclipsing the previous October record of 3 days in 1990. The town of Wanaaring in north west NSW had eight days over 35 degress, one day more than a October 1997 heatwave. Similarly, the NSW town of Bourke averaged a maximum temperature of 38.8 degrees, it’s hottest week for 116 years. The temperature of 45.2 degrees at Bidyadanga in Western Australia on October 9 had the dubious honour of earliest maximum temperature exceeding 45 degrees in Australia, exceeding the previous record by two weeks.
— John Englart EAM (@takvera) October 27, 2014
A spokeperson for the Bureau of Meteorology told the Sydney Morning Herald that these records are occurring earlier in the year and the duration is longer.
The elderly are at risk during heatwaves, and particularly at the start of the summer season when people are not used to the heat and often don’t take adequate precautions to prevent heat stress and dehydration. National Seniors issued a statement on 28 October to warn seniors of the danger.
— National Seniors (@NationalSeniors) October 28, 2014
On October 21 Adelaide experienced it’s fifth consecutive day of temperatures exceeding 32 degrees. Severe and extreme fire danger has also accompanied the heatwave. Heatwaves are now occurring earlier than the past.
— Stacey Lee (@Staceylee_) October 21, 2014
According to a Channel 9 news report the 2014/2015 bushfire season for New South Wales is expected to be much worse than last. But the more deadly killer will be the extreme heat which will most affect socially vulnerable groups in the population: the elderly, the very young, those on medication or pre-existing medical conditions, and people from ethnic backgrounds or economically disadvantaged.
Will heatwave emergency response plans be up to scratch this summer in communicating the dangers and preventing heat related deaths?
When will we start taking meaningful action in rapidly reducing emissions to limit the severity of heatwaves on the lives of our children and grand children?
Going back to that historical study on heat related deaths in Australia, it concludes with a chilling warning:
“The dangers from extreme heat within Australia remain neglected, and fundamental changes will not take place until extreme heat is given the priority it deserves as Australia’s number one natural hazard killer.”
Are you ready for a hot summer?
— John Englart EAM (@takvera) October 26, 2014