Monday, February 9, 2009

Temperature records smashed across the state

Marian Wilkinson Environment Editor

February 10, 2009

THE heatwave that accompanied the bushfires on Saturday smashed records, as much of Victoria, including Melbourne and 20 other centres, registered unprecedented highs, the Bureau of Meteorology says.

Melbourne reached 46.4 degrees on Saturday, the highest in 154 years of record-keeping, overshooting the previous high set on Black Friday - January 13, 1939 - by 0.8 degrees and far exceeding the temperature on Ash Wednesday in 1983, which was 43.2 degrees.

"We've never seen anything like this in Victoria's history," David Jones, from the bureau's National Climate Centre, said yesterday. "You don't usually break records by much. You might beat it by point one of a degree or point two."

The bureau accurately predicted the heatwave but it forecasters were still in shock yesterday over the loss of life. Soaring temperatures were accompanied by strong winds and very low humidity which created the extreme fire danger.

A review of the weekend temperatures by the bureau found many site records were set on Saturday. Geelong had a record high of 47.4 degrees compared to the old record of 44.8, which was set days earlier.

Nearly 90 per cent of the state recorded the highest February temperatures ever.

"Records being broken by that much are just unheard of," Mr Jones said. "You just don't break records with that kind of margin in a stable climate. It's an extraordinary event, this one."

The heatwave has struck southern Australia in two phases, beginning on January 28, when it lasted three days, and then returning over the weekend. Melbourne has experienced three of the hottest days on record in this recent event, according to the bureau, which has been tracking increased heatwaves across the south of the country.

"We've known it was coming," Mr Jones said. "We've had repeated, highly unusual heatwave activity in Australia in the last 10 years". In the first stage of the heatwave in January, record temperatures were set in Tasmania, when Flinders Island Airport recorded 41.5 degrees. Nearly half of Tasmania had the hottest day on record on January 30. In Launceston, three of the four warmest days on record were recorded during the heatwave, which has also been responsible for seven of the eight highest temperatures on record in Tasmania.

Extreme conditions in late January also affected Victoria, southern NSW and South Australia. Adelaide experienced its warmest night on record on January 29 when the temperature stood at 33.9 in the early hours of the morning. When the heatwave returned at the weekend, Renmark in South Australia set a February record of 48.1 degrees.

While no overall state temperature records were broken in NSW, several all-time records were set for some centres, including Wagga Wagga, where the temperature reached 45.2 for the first time.

The 2009 heatwave has also been exceptional because of its duration. Both Adelaide and Melbourne set records for the most consecutive days above 43 degrees.

Most importantly for the fire danger, the heatwave was accompanied by very dry conditions in Victoria and South Australia. Melbourne had no real rain for over a month, from January 4 to February 7, equal to the second-longest dry spell on record for the city.

Scientists warned us this was going to happen

If seeing is believing, then it's time to accept climate change, writes Freya Mathews.

IT IS only a couple of years since scientists first told us we could expect a new order of fires in south-eastern Australia, fires of such ferocity they would engulf the towns in their path.

And here they are. The fires of Saturday were not "once in 1000 years" or even "once in 100 years" events, as our political leaders keep repeating. They were the face of climate change.

They were the result of the new conditions that climate change has caused: higher temperatures, giving us hotter days, combined with lower rainfall, giving us a drier landscape. Let's stop using the word "drought", with its implication that dry weather is the exception. The desiccation of the landscape here is the new reality. It is now our climate.

People are comparing last Saturday to Ash Wednesday and Black Friday. But this misses the point. We should be comparing these fires to the vast and devastating fires of 2002-03, which swept through 2 million hectares of forest in the south-east and raged uncontrollably for weeks. They have been quickly forgotten because, being mainly in parks, they did not involve a large loss of human life or property. But it is to this fire regime, the new fire regime of climate change, rather than to the regimes of 1983 or 1939, that the present fires belong.

Saturday's events showed us the terrifying face of climate change. The heat was devastating, even without the fire.

Wildlife carers reported many incidents of heat stress and death among native animals. This means that out in the bush, unreported, vast numbers of animals were suffering. We can all see the trees and other plants dying in our gardens and parks. Our local fauna and flora have not adapted to these extremes. With wildfire, heat death becomes a holocaust, for people, for animals and for plants.

The Government is wondering how to stimulate the economy. It is planning to give away much of the surplus from boom times in handouts. It has made the usual token allocations to climate change mitigation, allocations that will in no way deflect the coming holocaust.

The Prime Minister weeps on television at the tragedy of Saturday's events. He looks around uncomprehendingly, unable to find meaning. But there is meaning. This is climate change. This is what the scientists told us would happen. All the climatic events of the past 10 years have led inexorably to this. And this is just the beginning of something that will truly, if unaddressed, overwhelm us.

As the events of Saturday showed, the consequences of climate change will make the financial crisis look like a garden party.

Yet there is a synchronicity here that must not be missed. The extraordinary economic measures for which the financial crisis is calling provide a perfect opportunity to fund the energy revolution for which the crisis of climate change is calling. If the Government does not seize it, then the terrifying world into which we were plunged on Saturday will become the world we will have to inhabit.

Freya Mathews is honorary research fellow at the philosophy department of La Trobe University