Sunday, June 7, 2009

State must brace for more heatwaves, deaths

Adam Morton 
The Age, June 8, 2009

CLIMATE change is causing heatwave records to be smashed in ways that would have been considered fantasy just a few years ago, a leading climate scientist has warned.

Monash University's Neville Nicholls said the increase in the number and severity of extremely hot summer days in Victoria was unprecedented, making it impossible to estimate accurately the impact it would have on people's health. The State Government recently estimated 374 Victorians may have died because of extreme heat in the final week of January.

Professor Nicholls, a lead author with the agenda-setting Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said many people thought of climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions as something that would happen in 2030 or 2070.

"With heatwaves it is not. Climate change is happening now and will happen all through the rest of our lifetimes," he told a State Government conference on adapting to climate change.

"We are seeing huge changes in the frequency and the extremity of heatwaves — every population centre in the world is being threatened by this."

The rise in extreme heat is one of the factors predicted to exacerbate the risk of bushfires as climate change takes hold.

Professor Nicholls said heat records for many centres were broken more than once last summer, often by huge margins by meteorological standards. Melbourne had never before experienced a run of three days hotter than 42 degrees. The final week of January had three consecutive days topping 43 degrees.

In March 2008, Adelaide had 15 days hotter than 35 degrees — seven more than the previous record.

"The old records are not just being broken by increments, they are being smashed," Professor Nicholls said, pointing to other heatwaves this decade in Europe, the US, Asia and south-eastern Australia.

Professor Nichols said adapting to cope with extreme heatwaves would be easier than factoring climate change into other aspects of life.

Measures included increasing fluid intake, keeping cool and reducing physical activity.

The number of nights that do not drop below 20 degrees, linked with increased mortality rates, has risen by 20 per cent over the past 50 years.

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