With more heatwaves to come, how will our cities hold up?

January 17, 2014 by Jane Mullett, Darryn Mcevoy, The Conversation
Heatwaves are set to become the norm – better get used to them. Credit: AAP/Joe Castro

Australia's south east is currently sweltering under an intense heatwave, one that is likely to become the second longest heatwave on record in the region.

So what have we learnt from the heatwave of 2009, also responsible for the Black Saturday fires, and how will our cities hold up after days of extreme heat?

This week in Melbourne and Adelaide daytime temperatures have exceeded 40C for at least the past three days and night-time temperatures have been in the high 20s. Today is also expected to be the most dangerous day for bushfires, with winds prompting the emergency services warning:

Fire Danger - Generally Severe, reaching Extreme in the west.

Back in the 2009 heatwave, the human cost was severe in Melbourne with 374 deaths attributed to heat and 173 lives lost to bushfires.

A report funded by the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility (NCCARF) not only highlighted this human cost but also the vulnerability of infrastructure that supports the functioning of our cities.

The major heat impacts on urban infrastructure and services were failures to the electrical system, direct and indirect impacts on the transport network, and the additional pressure placed on due to the number of people who succumbed to the heatwave and later the severity of the bushfires.

Power out

Rolling blackouts across Melbourne in January 29-30 2009 were a result of high electricity demand (driven predominantly by the use of air conditioners). A longer more serious shutdown of supply to the west was the result of a series of failures due to a combination of heat and the age of equipment.

Heat also caused train lines to buckle resulting in slowdowns and service cancellations, hundreds of people were stuck in the underground rail loop when the electricity cut out and many roads were without traffic signals.

Lethal bushfires, some of which were started by electrical failures, swept through country towns on February 7 2009 destroying more than 2,000 homes. As a result emergency services – particularly ambulance, fire and hospital emergency services – were stretched to almost breaking point.

Learning from experience

Since the 2009 heatwave a lot of effort has gone into understanding what happened and why.

Changes have been made to emergency management procedures and local councils have designed new heatwave plans. For example, in February 2011, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) released a National Strategy for Disaster Resilience which takes into account the learnings from the 2009 heatwave in its emergency management handbook series.

Credit: Flickr/Pockafwye

Heatwave plans are now part of normal local council business. For example, the City of Melbourne has an extensive heatwave response plan.

The police in Victoria are now up to speed with South Australia and designated to manage any heatwave emergency, whereas pre-2009 there was no command level set for heatwaves.

Furthermore, the Victorian government has instituted heatwave strategies including community awareness programs, designated cool spaces, and there is new media messaging on how to survive heatwaves.

It also has a heat health alert system to local governments, hospitals, and statewide or major metropolitan health and community service providers of forecast heatwave conditions which are likely to impact on human health.

The electricity sector has also acted to reduce risk of fire and has upgraded ageing infrastructure - though whether there is enough capacity in the system to meet the peaks in demand (due to the use of air conditioners during periods of extreme heat) is yet to be seen.

Blackouts threatened

Victorian Premier Denis Napthine said on Wednesday that staged blackouts may be needed in order to manage electricity supply.

Work has also been carried out to reduce the buckling of train lines and timetables have been adjusted for periods of hot weather.

Emergency services are on high alert and there is no longer the institutional complacency that greeted the 2009 heatwave.

The South Australian government also provides guidance to deal with .

Is it enough?

The urban fabric is clearly under stress from the current heatwave. The Australian Energy Market Operator has indicated that Victoria and South Australia have recorded the highest levels of electricity consumption since January 2009.

Damage caused by the Back Saturday fires. Credit: AAP Image/Supreme Court Victoria

As a consequence of both the heat and high demand, there have been a series of power losses due to equipment failure, with a number of Melbourne neighbourhoods affected by blackouts. There is the possibility of "planned" rolling blackouts to reduce demand on the system. Trains are travelling 10kmh below their normal speed as a precaution due to the heat and some disruption to services has occurred.

A total fire ban for the State of Victoria and for South Australia was declared for yesterday and today and there have already been numerous fires causing concern.

Australia is already vulnerable to climate variability, and these vulnerabilities are likely to be exaggerated with the projected increase in the mean temperature leading to changes in extreme weather events.

The Climate Council this week published a timely interim report that warns about more frequent, hotter and longer lasting heatwaves.

It is worth noting that this extreme heatwave comes during a period when one of the main climate drivers of droughts and floods, the El Niño Southern Oscillation weather pattern, is considered neutral and not in its El Niño phase which typically brings hot and dry weather to Australia.

This current heatwave in Melbourne will last a day longer than in the 2009 and the night temperatures are significantly higher. Bureau of Meteorology data shows that minimum night temperature for this current heatwave includes Tuesday night 28.6C, and Wednesday night 27C and the forecast for Thursday is 29C. In Adelaide the heatwave will last for five days.

Next heatwaves more severe

While lessons have clearly been learnt from the 2009 heatwave it is clear that future , and more severe events, will require longer term planning.

That means an extensive upgrading of infrastructure if our cities are to be made resilient in the face of climate change and ever increasing urban populations.

This may well include thinking that goes beyond current incremental changes to more radical transformational change in how our cities function.

Explore further: Australian heatwave set to worsen as fires rage

Related Stories

Australian heatwave set to worsen as fires rage

January 16, 2014

Australians sweltering through a severe heatwave were warned on Thursday that the worst Is yet to come, with hundreds of fires raging in several states and temperatures nearing record highs.

Temperature hits all-time record in Sydney

January 18, 2013

Temperatures in Sydney on Friday hit their highest levels since records began 150 years ago, after an Australian government agency warned of more frequent and intense heatwaves in the future.

NASA image: Fires in South Australia Jan. 16, 2014

January 16, 2014

According to ABC News Channel 24 in Australia: "The Country Fire Service is battling several bushfires across South Australia, one of which threatened a house." All of the fires are bushfires which are being fueled by grass ...

Recommended for you

Arctic wintertime sea ice extent is among lowest on record

March 23, 2018

Sea ice in the Arctic grew to its annual maximum extent last week, and joined 2015, 2016 and 2017 as the four lowest maximum extents on record, according to scientists at the NASA-supported National Snow and Ice Data Center ...

Germany was covered by glaciers 450,000 years ago

March 23, 2018

The timing of the Middle Pleistocene glacial-interglacial cycles and the feedback mechanisms between climatic shifts and earth-surface processes are still poorly understood. This is largely due to the fact that chronological ...

Wood pellets: Renewable, but not carbon neutral

March 22, 2018

A return to firewood is bad for forests and the climate. So reports William Schlesinger, President Emeritus of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, in an Insights article published today in the journal Science.

The tradeoffs inherent in earthquake early warning systems

March 22, 2018

A team of researchers with the U.S. Geological Survey and the California Institute of Technology has found that modern earthquake early warning (EEW) systems require those interpreting their messages to take into consideration ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

The Shootist
2.3 / 5 (12) Jan 17, 2014
With more heatwaves to come, how will our cities hold up?

I don't know. How have your cities held up so far? Timbuktu and Khartoum are as warm, or warmer, than anywhere down under, how have they held up in hot weather for the 2000, or so, years they've been settled?
3.9 / 5 (11) Jan 17, 2014
Little bit of comparing apples to oranges don't you think??
1.9 / 5 (13) Jan 17, 2014
So I'm a bit curious why these "scientists" who KNOW the future don't just open up fortune telling businesses. I would imagine it's a bit more profitable than toiling away in a lab.
2.8 / 5 (10) Jan 17, 2014
Just the facts, please. From IPCC Fifth Assessment (AR5):

"There is only medium confidence that the length and frequency of warm spells, including heat waves, has increased since the middle of the 20th century mostly due to lack of data or studies in Africa and South America. However, it is likely that heat wave frequency has increased during this period in large parts of Europe, Asia and Australia."

What that means is scientists can predict anything they want about future climate change, but observations so far tell us very little about the intensity and frequency of heat waves correlating to global temperature. Meteorologists have understood for a long time that heat waves are caused by stationary high pressure systems usually driven by oceanic currents. So far the ability to predict changes in oceanic currents is extremely limited. Anyone who says heat waves will intensify due to global warming is offering an opinion, not a scientific statement.
3.6 / 5 (9) Jan 17, 2014
Also this, from IPCC AR5 (2013) correcting misstatements from AR4 (2007):

"Confidence is low for a global-scale observed trend in drought or dryness (lack of rainfall) since the middle of the 20th century, due to lack of direct observations, methodological uncertainties and geographical inconsistencies in the trends. Based on updated studies, AR4 conclusions regarding global increasing trends in drought since the 1970s were probably overstated. However, this masks important regional changes: the frequency and intensity of drought has likely increased in the Mediterranean and West Africa and likely decreased in central North America and north-west Australia since 1950."
3.4 / 5 (8) Jan 17, 2014
Why does the media need to turn EVERYTHING into a cataclysmic event of life threatening propertions? Does it sell more advertising or is it that they are desperate to prolong stories rather than perform real journalism any more?

We no longer have storms but super cells, wind gusts are now mini tornados, river flash flooding - inland tsunamis( you're right how is it even a tsunami?)

We just used to call it another day here in Australia and get on with life...
2.2 / 5 (10) Jan 18, 2014
this article is just yet another in a long line of geeenie BS
3.7 / 5 (7) Jan 18, 2014
Why does the media need to turn EVERYTHING into a cataclysmic event of life threatening propertions? Does it sell more advertising or is it that they are desperate to prolong stories rather than perform real journalism any more?...

Exactly, and unfortunately this is mistaken by the general public as what climatologists/meteorologists are actually saying. Sensationalist headlines sell. And that's all the media are interested in.

Here in the Uk for instance a certain newspaper has had the headline (coldest winter for 100 years) on it's front page over this last several winters (this one included - it's v mild). Says who? One or 2 tin-pot "experts" desperate for publicity of any kind, knowing it's a win/win, for them. The paper doesn't care because "it's what the experts said"
See here a blog by an ex-colleague....

This distortion creates polarisation in the "debate" of no making of the real science.
3.4 / 5 (5) Jan 18, 2014
With more heatwaves to come, how will our cities hold up?

I don't know. How have your cities held up so far? Timbuktu and Khartoum are as warm, or warmer, than anywhere down under, how have they held up in hot weather for the 2000, or so, years they've been settled?

What measure would you prefer? Per-capita income? Level of education? Health and lifespan? Amount of war, violence, lawlessness? Commerce and industry?
1 / 5 (1) Jan 19, 2014
Crikey, mate!

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.