The heat is upon us
Now that we have survived a few hot summer days and can expect some heatwaves through the summer it is useful to remember that heatwaves apparently kill more Australians than any other natural disasters.
A number of Australian cities, in particular Brisbane, Melbourne and Adelaide, have experienced significant deaths due to heatwaves since the late 1800s. It is likely that this pattern has been repeated in major regional centres, and will continue, especially with population growth and an ageing population.
However, there has never been a national study which uses a common definition of heatwaves and directly compares mortality data, until now. Working with support from the Commonwealth Government and the Bureau of Meteorology, PricewaterhouseCoopers have released a report entitled "Protecting human health and safety during severe and extreme health events – a national framework". The research conducted demonstrates that heatwaves have led to considerable excess deaths in Melbourne, Adelaide, Brisbane, Sydney and Perth over the past 50 years.
The report predicts that by 2050 an extreme heat event in Melbourne alone could typically kill over 1,000 people in a few days if we don't improve the way we forecast, prepare for and manage these events. They researchers consider it is likely that Brisbane could face a similar death toll with Adelaide, Sydney and Perth increasingly impacted.
Putting these comments into perspective, the report quotes the tragedies of 173 people dying in the Black Saturday fires in Victoria in 2009 and 35 in the Queensland floods in 2010-2011. However, even more tragically, more than 370 people died from extreme heat in Victoria in the same week as the Black Saturday fires.
Whilst much is being done in making our homes, businesses and community safer, there is much more that can be done to ensure we have the correct infrastructure and a more resilient population base. The report suggests that having an early warning system, developing an Excessive Heat Factor forecasting framework, which recognises local differences in heat conditions and experience, will enable emergency workers, social health and health workers, families and carers to be in a much better position to respond.
This report suggests that with the right support the Bureau of Meteorology could provide this tool quite rapidly.
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