Why Australia's Cities Struggle During Heatwaves

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?

Picture: Getty Images

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 emergency services 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.

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 extreme heat.

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.

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 climate change, and more severe heatwave 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.

Jane Mullett is a research fellow and Darren McEvoy is Professor in the Climate Change Adaptation Program at RMIT University. Jane Mullett currently receives funding from USAID. She has received funding from the National Climate Change Research Facility (NCCARF) and the Victorian Centre for Climate Change Adaptation Research(VCCCAR). Darryn McEvoy receives funding from a variety of national and international research funding bodies.

The ConversationThis article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.



    Last edited 18/06/15 9:20 am

      Since there is no climate control team anymore, there isn't a problem anymore either. I still wonder who voted for him...

        I know two people. One is an idiot who supports anything liberal, is a climate change denier.

        The other basically said Labor didn't deserve to win. When I challenged her about Abbott, before the election. It was essentially a list of worst fears about Abbott and she had the attitude that none of that would really eventuate. Of course pretty much all the worst fears have come true and been exceeded. I should ask her again. Probably still in blissful ignorance land.

          Not sure why you brought up politics in relation to this article but Abbott, he has hardly been in long enough to cause an increase in the temperature. The climate scientists suspect that as a result of human pollution the temperature may go up 1 degree on average in the next 100 years, this has dramatic repercussions for the sea ice and habitats but that did not cause the heat wave we just experienced. It's Australia and its summer, heat waves have been happening here for centuries and will continue to happen.

          First of all, I do believe in climate change, I'm not an expert, as I am sure most people here are not but I do believe the scientists that the global temperature is increasing. I don't know anyone in their right mind who could say the carbon tax was a good idea though, either to meet its goal or to be economically viable. It should have been an ETS if anything, and should be a taken to all countries to sign up, or business will just move to the country without a carbon tax as has happened. Labor just made us as a country more uncompetitive - goodbye manufacturing and a number of other industries. Wake up people Labor caused the recession we are bound to have, not that the liberal government is doing enough to prevent it either. I think anyone who voted Labor need to go back to school and understand basic economics - it affects us all like it or not.

      What's this got to do with politics? They can't snap their fingers and magically make the weather cooler.

      Yes there is greenhouse emissions and carbon tax and blah blah but honestly, you're living in one of the hottest countries in the world, and you're complaining about the heat. Move to New Zealand if you prefer the cold. It's summer, it gets hot. That's got nothing to do with politics.

        You do know the point of climate change action is to stop it get WORSE right?

        First - I completely agree with your sentiment about moving south if you can't handle the heat. There's no need to move to NZ, there's plenty of wonderful property in Tasmania that isn't plagued by hot weather.

        But, what has this got to do with politics? Well, everything. Yes, the polly's can't change the weather, but they had sure as sh*t understand what it's going to be like for then next 50 years so they can introduce regulation forcing people to prepare for it.

        Which is cheaper: building a highway that can withstand a flood, or rebuilding a highway year after year because it gets washed away. Or, a private example: Forcing people to build their house to hurricane standards before the storm, or dealing with a flattened town because builders were able to build houses on the cheap?

        Economics works for pricing direct costs born by the seller into the price of goods. It fails at incorporating social costs and non-renewable costs into the prices of goods. ie. Economics will include the removing a stone from a quarry and the labour of turning it into a slate pool table. It will not include the cost of the seller's pollution, nor the cost of one day running out of stones. For these costs you need legislation.

        Here's a list of things you could expect from an intelligent government that believes in science:
        * Build power generators to cope with increased peak demand of hot days
        * Increase the minimum height above sea level for new home development
        * Increase the minimum standards for infrastructure and house development to cater for cyclones and floods
        * Increase the budget to emergency services to better handle fire, flood and storm
        * Sign up to an ETS and put diplomatic pressure and free trade restrictions on countries that do not sign up
        * Proactively move the risk of mega-catastrophes to insurance and reinsurance companies, and away from the public purse.

        .... Or our government could just do nothing and try to look surprised when extreme events become more extreme and more frequent; then pay twice as much to clean up the damage.

          well said.

          it makes me laugh here in south australia, we have a newly developed suburb that they've been developing like crazy in for the last 10 years, called Mawson Lakes - it makes me laugh because the whole suburb has been built up in a freakin flood plane. so when we get those 1 in 50 year floods, look out peeps.

          but the people who signed off on it dont care, they have their money now...

          this world pisses me off, people more concerned over the dollar then each others lives or whats good for and helpful for people in society.

            Pretty much the entire city is built on a flood plain.

              it would be very interesting to see how far the water rises and to what areas. where i live, is at the base of the foot hills so i doubt id see water lapping up against my door.

          "Build power generators to cope with increased peak demand of hot days", and just how much extra are we talking about spending for 2 or 3 days use a year? Personally I'd rather see the extra funds spent on Health or Education and put up with a few days a of pain a year.

        Has everything to do with politics. Firstly there's been a few decades of warnings on climate change and basically nothing being done. It will get worse in the future than it had to have.

        Secondly a big factor is, our cities can't cope with this. This is the immediate side of dealing with climate change, adapting our cities and infrastructure to cope. Which will never happen when our country is run by people who deny this is a real problem.

      also known as the catbug approach

      Throw a blanket over it!

      *EDIT* I totally didn't realize there was a Catbug reference right before I posted this!

      Last edited 18/01/14 6:54 pm

    I never understand why it's such a big deal when it gets hot in summer. It's Australia. It's summer. It's hot.

      What surprises me is that the infrastructure isn't built for it. Why are the trains suffering so much, is it news to them that Australia gets hot?

      Then again this is the same country that allowed different rail gauges between states. I'm expecting too much.

        Couldn't agree more. It isn't a surprise that temperatures occasionally exceed 40C so why have both railways and tramways (here in Vic) put in rails that can buckle at about 45C? Surely any competent authority should have put in a safety margin.

        I get the impression that some of the problems on public transport are due to skimping on maintenance (e.g. effective air-conditioning), which may be a consequence of poorly thought out privitisation (lack of maintenance requirements in the agreements and/or oversight and enforcement of such requirements).

          Rails are made of steel alloy. Metal expands when it heats. What would you have them make the rails out of?

      its a big deal because people die.....

      There's a big difference between hot (30c) and incredibly hot (44c)...

      I don't think we can really call it a 'heat wave' when it happens every single year.... coincidentally during summer, how bizarre!

        haha yeah there is a difference between 35 degrees and 45 degrees. The fact that there has been multiple consecutive days above 40 is the 'heatwave' bit. Obviously summer is hot.

    you people talk like there has never been a heatwave before, and they are only a feature of the last 100 years.

    Please, some of these temperature records they are breaking are from just before the 1900's.

    Combustion engines and electricity as we know them ( and blame them pretty much entirely for 'climate change') weren't in wide use then.

    The world is changing whether we like it or not. It has always been changing and will continue to change.

    Furthermore, there is 2.5 Billion people in India & China alone; there is no more than 25 million people in Australia. No amount of time or money that our government spends on trying to reverse this thing they call climate change will do anything. Even if every person in Australia just died and absolutely nothing was happening in Australia it would make absolutely no difference to the world climate condition. We are 1% of China and India, and 0.3% of the world population.

    Also there is no accurate way to actually measure carbon emissions by country it is all just educated guesswork by people who can't decide whether eggs are actually good for us or not.

    I for one am glad that our country isn't mindlessly wasting money on climate change (or trying to pointless raise money using climate change as the excuse).

      Ah the short sighted, always good to see you folk.

      Well there is one tikanderoga...

      That's why we create some kind of emissions trading scheme, where other countries can pay us to use our land to offset their magnitudes of emissions. We may not have a big population but we have a pretty bloody big country by land mass.

        Sooooo we still pump out the same amount of global emissions.... Well played. What next? Pay $X and call it "Allocated Pollution"?

          Well the idea would be that if a business has to pay for their carbon usage to be offset. They would try to lower their emissions to pay less.

    Not to be nit-picky, but...
    I'm not sure how this cleared it past proof reading, but the correct notation for temperature on the Celsius scale is degrees Celsius: °C (not just C)
    The degree symbol can be typed easily on any (Windows) PC by typing Alt+0176.

    *Bonus tip for smartphone users: hold the zero key to see the degree symbol.

    *Bonus bonus tip.
    Correct temperate notation:
    - Degrees Fahrenheit: °F
    - Degrees Celsius: °C
    - Kelvin: K (no degrees, just Kelvin)

      The plebs don't know how to use alt codes, so just leave them be.

    Its been very hot here in Bendigo the past few days, and it's been very difficult for my family. We dont have air conditioning and are not in a position to get it. So we're suffering. So infrastructure and policies should be in place to ensure that extreme heat (which Australia is already notorious for), bear that in mind.

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