In what’s becoming an annual rite of passage each summer, a monster heat wave has blanketed nearly all of Australia. Bats boiling alive, crews scrambling to combat brush fires, roads melting, and cricket players keeling over are just a handful of the apocalyptic-sounding impacts.
Heat has always been a part of Australian life. But scientists have warned that the Land Down Under has tipped into a new state where climate change is making almost every heat wave stronger and longer.
This year’s early January heat wave has been most pronounced in New South Wales, Australia’s most populous state. Temperatures topped out at 47.3 degrees Celsius (117 degrees Fahrenheit) on Sunday in Sydney’s far western suburbs, making them the hottest place on the planet. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, that’s the hottest temperature ever recorded in the Sydney region. While the city itself was cooler, the heat still caused the highest daily water use in 15 years.
Bushfires in the suburbs and across the province, fueled by the record-breaking heat, also stretched firefighting resources thin. The same is true in other parts of the country, and the states of Victoria, South Australia, and Tasmania have declared a total fire ban to stop people from setting fires that could rage out of control in the heat. The heat has also caused a 10 kilometer (6.2 mile) stretch of road to melt outside Melbourne, where next week’s start to the Australia Open is likely to be a scorcher.
Despite the heat, England and Australia played a major cricket match at Sydney Cricket Ground over the weekend. The final match of the Ashes, which Wikipedia tells my ignorant American self is a test series, went on despite England’s captain Joe Root being hospitalized due to dehydration and illness after temperatures peaked at 57 degrees Celsius (134 degrees Fahrenheit) on the playing field. For the cricketheads, Australia won by innings and 123 runs.
Humans aren’t the only ones suffering through the heat. A local volunteer group that helps wildlife on the southern fringes of Sydney found at least 200 dead flying foxes, the largest bats in the world. Temperatures in excess of 44 degrees Celsius (111 degrees Fahrenheit) essentially cooked the bats alive.
“There were tears shed and hearts sunken, it’s devestating [sic] when a colony like our local one goes down like this due to heat, this colony needs more canopy cover and shaded areas to help with our ever rising hot summers because this episode will surely not be the last,” volunteers at Help Save the Wildlife and Bushlands in Campbelltown, who discovered the dead bats, wrote on Facebook.
The group has since posted videos of volunteers spraying koalas to help keep them cool. The efforts to help wildlife are expected to continue as more heat arrives later this week.
La Niña, a climate pattern that periodically forms in the tropical Pacific, popped up late last year, and could be responsible for some of the heat. It tends to increase the odds of warmth in parts of New South Wales.
While no research has been done to see if climate change is fueling this particular stretch of hot weather, at this point it’s almost to be expected. Scientists have conducted analysis of other Australian heat waves in recent years, and found all were made more likely or intense by climate change. The rise in background temperatures gives a boost to Australia’s already hot summers.
Last year’s February scorcher was at least 50 times more likely due to human carbon pollution. This summer hasn’t been as extreme as last year’s so far, which was the hottest on record for New South Wales. But the findings published last year give a sense of how much climate change has shifted the odds for extreme heat—and how much worse it will get if we allow the world to warm 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). Here’s how the scientists who studied the heat wave last year put it:
“In the past, a summer as hot as 2016-2017 was a roughly 1 in 500-year event. Today, climate change has increased the odds to roughly 1 in 50 years — a 10-fold increase in frequency. In the future, a summer as hot as this past summer in New South Wales is likely to happen roughly once every five years.”
If that happens, dehydrated cricket players will be the least of our worries.