Wednesday, February 4, 2009

City heatwave sends seasons into a spin

THE leaves may be turning brown and falling, but it's not an early autumn.

Melbourne's trees — along with leafy vegetables such as lettuces, beetroots and even potatoes — have fallen victim to last week's extreme heat.

Also falling are some of the creatures that live in trees, including possums and fruit bats. Animals at the Melbourne Zoo have needed special attention such as sprinklers, and our wine industry, already hit by stalling exports, has had about 20 per cent of its grapes scorched.

Even the sacred Aussie passion for sport is not immune, with Nillumbik Council in Melbourne's north-east shutting down 14 cricket pitches, causing the local cricket association to admit in an emergency meeting last night there would be fewer games this year.

With more extreme heat predicted this weekend, the game that originated on the village greens of England is struggling on the suburban browns of Melbourne.

Even though other councils have not closed grounds, Bruce Dowland from the Southern District and Churches Cricket Association said that on some grounds that had not received a water ration, the game was beginning to resemble beach cricket.

Melbourne's Botanic Gardens have been undertaking a program to save plants and director Richard Barley said they were in reasonable condition, but he is concerned about the long-term prospects for Melbourne's established street trees such as planes and elms. "Dropping their leaves is a normal reaction for trees in these circumstances. They have been hit by the two factors of the extended dry and the extraordinary hot air temperatures of last week.

"If we had cooler, wetter conditions to the end of April it is possible they could grow back some of their foliage, but if these conditions continue over the next two or three years, it will put them under enormous stress and it is likely a lot of them will die."

The City of Port Phillip, where plane trees in some streets have dumped large numbers of leaves, has introduced novel approaches to keeping itself green, including filling wheelie bins with recycled water to drip-irrigate those trees considered most vulnerable. It also has a recycling scheme with a company that pumps waste water from utility pits around Melbourne that is now treated and used to irrigate parkland.

At the City of Melbourne, which prided itself on recycled water irrigation, Lord Mayor Robert Doyle has declared precious parkland must be saved and has ordered an increase in both potable and recycled water use to do this.

While horticulturists are concerned that their wilted vegetables will be spurned by supermarkets and consumers, they say they are still nutritious. ■The Adelaide morgue is almost full after a spike in deaths, some linked to the heatwave. The morgue can store 72 bodies but usually holds only about 25. On Tuesday, it had 71. With AAP

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