Australian heatwave: burning global issue

Sat, Jan 12, 2013, 00:00

Q: What if the Australian heatwave became the norm worldwide?

Phew, what a scorcher! as the tabloids used to say about exceptionally warm summer days in Britain. Although what most Australians have been experiencing in their summer is not just the odd hot day, but a heatwave of historic proportions since the end of December.

With temperatures predicted to peak this weekend at 52 degrees – more than half the boiling point of water – it is not surprising there have been forest fires, burning homes, melting asphalt and petrol vaporising at filling stations.

This heatwave is unprecedented, said David Jones of the Australian Bureau of Meteorology. “Clearly, the climate system is responding to the background warming trend. Everything that happens now . . . is taking place on a planet which is a degree hotter than it used to be.”

The bureau had to add dark purple and magenta to its colour-coded weather forecasting map to represent temperatures of 51 to 54 degrees. Previously, the maximum shown on the map was 50, represented by a black colour.

Bob Ward of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change in London said it was “a measure of just how extreme this heatwave is” that the meteorological bureau had to recalibrate its monitoring by adding an extra four degrees to the scale: “It is a sign of things to come.”

Temperature rise

If the latest Australian heatwave – following so soon after a 2009 scorcher that killed 173 people – can be taken as hard evidence of global warming, what would happen if average values continued to rise by up to 6 degrees in a worst-case scenario?

Research into the effects on the planet the last time temperatures increased so much 55 million years ago has found that mass extinctions occurred. But new forms of life evolved and others travelled long distances to find a cooler climate.

The combination of more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and increased temperatures could be “catastrophic” for an overpopulated world, according to Dr Phillip Jardine of Birmingham University, one of the scientists involved in the US-funded Bighorn Basin Coring Project.

“Because food is less nutritious in a warmer world people, animals and insects will have to eat more to survive,” according to the Climate News Network.

“In this situation, smaller, hobbit-sized people, who mature sexually earlier, will have the best chance of surviving.”

In its first article, former Guardian environment correspondent Paul Brown warns: “Unless politicians act quickly (and there is currently no sign of them doing so), then mass extinctions are expected . . . within the next 200 years.