Buckle Up, Australia: The Air Is Made Of Fire

Image: iStock

The Australia Bureau of Meteorology's heatwave service is working overtime as the country braces for temperatures of up to 47 degrees Celsius over the weekend. Preparation is key, so here's some practical tips on how to deal with the heat, from experts (and us).

Where are we getting this information from?

The heatwave service shows a set of maps showing colour-coded heatwave severity for the previous two three-day periods, and the next five three-day periods. As part of the service, "assessment" maps show areas where heatwave conditions currently are, what they are expected to do in the near future, and if the intensity is severe or extreme status. This is the assessment as of today.

Image: BOM

The heatwave forecast, on the other hand, gives us an indication of the next five three-day periods. It shows areas where heatwave conditions are forecast to occur and will also indicate whether their intensity is expected to reach severe or extreme status.

Image: BOM

Three or more days of high maximum and minimum temperatures that are unusual for that location is considered a heatwave, and we know that one is on it's way when the forecast maximum and minimum temperatures over the next three days are compared to actual temperatures over the previous thirty days, then these same three days are compared to the 'normal' temperatures expected for that particular location.

The calculation takes into account people's ability to adapt to the heat. For example, the same high temperature will be felt differently by residents in Perth compared to those in Hobart, who are not used to the higher range of temperatures experienced in Perth.

This means that in any one location, temperatures that meet the criteria for a heatwave at the end of summer will generally be hotter, than the temperatures that meet the criteria for a heatwave at the beginning of summer.

The bulk of heatwaves at each location are of low intensity, with most people expected to have adequate capacity to cope with this level of heat. Less frequent, higher intensity heatwaves are classified as severe and will be challenging for some more vulnerable people, such as those over 65, pregnant women, babies and young children, and those with a chronic illness.

Even rarer and exceptionally intense heatwaves are classed as extreme, and will impact normally reliable infrastructure - such as power and transport. Extreme heatwaves are a risk for anyone who does not take precautions to keep cool, even those who are healthy. That's what we're bracing for here.

What does this mean?

Heatwaves have a range of economic and planning impacts across a broad range of sectors, including health care, transport, emergency services, energy and agriculture. Impacts to these sectors may also have an effect on responding to people in need. Knowing a heatwave is coming will help these sectors better prepare for these conditions, and reduce the level of impact to people, businesses and industry.

Government, emergency services and communities need time to adjust and to adopt measures to reduce the impact of a heatwave. Blackouts are more prevalent in severe and extreme heatwaves. Personally, we need to be prepared with an alternative source of power for radios and torches, and keep mobile phones fully charged where possible.

In the last 200 years, severe and extreme heatwaves have taken more lives than any other natural hazard in Australia. For example, during the 2009 Victorian bushfires, 173 people perished as a direct result of the fires; however 374 people lost their lives in the heatwave that occurred before the bushfires.

Violent weather events, such as tornadoes, floods, cyclones or severe thunderstorms tend to create a lot of media attention, including reporting on how many people lost their life or were injured. Heatwaves are not associated with these violent events, so tend to not be reported in the media to the same extent.

But heatwaves can result in significant health stress on vulnerable people. This stress may result in death during the heat event but in many cases this can occur well after the heatwave has passed. Often the cause of death during a heatwave is difficult to determine, as many people who die during a heatwave have a pre-existing or contributing health condition.

Unfortunately, climate projections show that extreme heat events are expected to occur more often and with greater intensity in the future.

Heatwaves are more complex than just the daily maximum temperature. The minimum (or overnight) temperature is extremely important as well. If the minimum remains high then the subsequent maximum will occur earlier in the day and remain near that high temperature for a longer period. A higher minimum temperature also restricts the amount of recovery that can occur, due to less opportunity to discharge heat.

So what do we do?

Associate Professor Ian Stewart is an environmental occupational and exercise physiologist who studies heat strain for at-risk workers in physically demanding jobs. His expertise has informed various temperature-related work regulations, and he has previously studied children's physical activities in the heat.

Dr Stewart says anyone working outside is at risk, but the more active their job is, the more they are at risk of heat exhaustion and heat stroke.

"Everyone generates extra heat internally which, under normal circumstances, dissipates into the cooler air outside the body, so that we maintain a core temperature of between 36c and 37c," Dr Stewart says. "But if the air outside is already 37c or higher, your body can no longer get rid of that excess heat – you've lost that natural mechanism for dispersing your internal heat. That's why heatwaves are a so dangerous."

And humidity brings added danger, he says. "It's double trouble when there is high humidity during a heatwave because your sweat is no longer doing its job. It pours off your skin before it has time to evaporate and cool you down."

"In a heat stroke situation, the body's cardiovascular system actually stops trying to send blood to the skin to disperse heat and starts concentrating solely on maintaining adequate blood pressure," Dr Stewart says.

"It's important to lie the person down, put ice packs under their knees and in their armpits and groin (where the main arteries are close to the surface) and give them small amounts of cool fluid (not ice-cold)."

Kelly Stewart, an accredited sports dietician, studies nutritional intake in athletes who are often working under extreme conditions. Ms Stewart says we also need to watch what we eat during a heatwave.

"Cold salads with lots of vegies and a protein-rich ingredient is a great choice in a heatwave," Ms Stewart say, "Try eating lots of cold fruits like watermelon or frozen grapes. Sandwiches with toppings that naturally contain a bit of salt will help you hang onto the water you drink."

Of course, we should also be drinking water - but not too much.

"Water, water and more water. A little bit of cordial is okay but not too much – we don't want to end the heatwave 5kg heavier," she says. "Active outside workers could benefit from a sports drink during the day to help them retain the fluid they're consuming but I'd advise a sports drink for children or the elderly only if they are dehydrated."

"Avoid hot meals altogether in a heatwave," Ms Stewart says. "Hot meals heat up your body as well as your house, neither of which you want to happen. Soft drinks or juice are generally unnecessary – a piece of fruit is a far better choice."

As for keeping your home cool, our friends at Lifehacker Australia have the best advice. Here's some of the main tips:

  • Put a bowl of ice in front of your fan. If you're using a basic fan, this can greatly increase its effectiveness.
  • Keep a spray bottle of water in the fridge. Spritzing yourself then provides a fast way to cool down. For maximum effectiveness, learn where your body's quick-cooling points are. For a portable variant, check out how to make a cooling scarf.
  • Keep the curtains drawn. The effectiveness of this will vary depending on your kind of property, size of windows and orientation of the building. However, in many cases, keeping the sunlight out is more effective than opening the windows, especially on still days. You could also experiment with a green curtain of plants for even more cooling impact.
  • Take advantage of public air conditioning. You don't have to stay at home: head to a shopping centre or a public library to take advantage of cooler temperatures.
  • Don't obsessively keep track of the temperature. With everyone seemingly lugging smartphones, an update on the current temperature is only a glance away. However, knowing that it's 47 degrees won't help you, and could hinder you. Studies suggest that if we believe the temperature is lower than it actually is, we don't suffer from heat-related effects to the same extent.
  • Make sure your computer isn't running hot. This won't massively change the temperature around the house (unless you have a very small office), but it's worth making sure your computer isn't running at excessive temperatures.

And of course, be sure to check on any elderly friends, family and neighbours - and don't leave pets outside or without a constant supply of water.

Stay safe, Australia.

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    Mid to hight 20's up here :) but its the humidity that sucks.

    We have a record breaking forecast for the next 3 days in the Upper Blue Mountains (above 36c) but will be tempered with lower humidity than the flatlands. So I'll be doing some of my work at the local shopping centre cafe (air con on max), as home air con is still a rarity up here (not next summer though).

    Last edited 09/02/17 10:04 am

    So far, here in Melbourne, we haven't had any higher than 38 and it usually cools down after a couple of days. If we start getting heaps of hot weather in the future, I'll just move to Tassie or a cooler country.

      Just got back from Poland - Gets quite cold there, and the cost of living is fantastically low. $10 for a pack of smokes and 12 x pint cans of 6% beer.

        Hey, my parents are Polish. I hear the women over there are pretty good and not fat unlike most of the women in the western countries.

    The sinful shall burn in hellfire

      Better than getting bored shitless in heaven.

        No doubt, I got my special reserve seating years ago ;)

    And in Perth, its raining and 15C. Maybe the weather is swithing sides. Hopefully we get the snow as well.

      Haha Perth drivers can barely handle a slight drizzle or rain.. Snow would = armageddon on the roads.

        we just 2 and abit days of cool weather and over 100ml of rainfall here in the shoalhaven on the NSW south coast, but it aint gunna do much for Friday, Saturday and Sunday

    42 in SA yesterday evening around 5ish or 6ish, dont think it dropped below 30 last night. we have ducted split system at home, so we were cool overnight.

    had a friend up in remote SA and she said it was recording 46 degrees up there.

    STRAYA, if ya cant hack the heat, ya arent Strayan!

      Was 32 degrees at 2am last night. The 'rolling blackout' wasn't ideal either. Maybe the Gizmodo team can do a 'Home Generator' setup for SA residents

      Hate the frigging heat and it's just another reason why I left SA and moved to Melbourne.

        meh, i love the heat. prefer to be in shorts and a singlet than in a wet and cold winter trying to keep dry and warm. which is weird because i have European blood in my veins. but oh well. humans be humans.

          I know a pom who loves the heat. He's not happy until it's in the 30's. Looking back though, I never minded it much and I lived in Alice springs for a year. I suppose I'm now use to the cooler weather so whenever it gets hot, I hate it. I still don't like it when it's under 5 degrees. Too frigging cold. Brrrrr

    And remember your pets. If you're feeling the heat, they probably are too. I put a couple slightly damp towels in a plastic bag and keep them in the fridge. Every now and then I get them out and drop them on the floor for the dogs to lie on. Shallow dish with a little water and a handful of icecubes works well too.

    Oh, and dogs can drink sports drink without ill effects too (just not too much or they'll get fat). So if your dogs are really struggling with heat they can drink a little too. Though, if it's that bad, you should probably be talking to the vet instead.

    I'm a fat cat Mining Billionaire so none of this bothers me with my Ducted Air Con, refrigerated swimming pool and enough $'s not to care bills.
    BTW Climate Change is not a problem for mankind or the planet.

    Got AC at home, the Murrumbidgee in one direction and the town pool in the other. My only concern is the AC not reaching my computer room. I really need Ark time this weekend :(

    I remember back in '75 when we went on a school excursion to Port Kembla. Some old digger there proudly claimed that Australia had a enough coal to keep us going for about another 800 years. It looks like that 800 years(minus 42 yrs) of coal needs to start staying in the ground sooner than later. http://www.popularmechanics.com/science/energy/a4947/4339171/

    Last edited 09/02/17 2:28 pm

    Gyms have air con, go there....two birds, one stone sort of thing

    "A little bit of cordial is okay but not too much – we don't want to end the heatwave 5kg heavier". I'm not sure if this was meant as a bit of a joke but it is precisely why I ignore dieticians. Seriously, putting cordial in your water on a hot day is not going to make you put on weight. I stopped drinking beer after Xmas (it's the only alcohol I ever drink), so I've probably reduced my calorie intake by about a third, plus I have increased my level of physical activity during the same period by maybe 25%, without changing my diet or otherwise compensating for not drinking. So by this fool's logic, I should have lost a substantial amount of weight by now, yet I am not so much as 1 kg lighter than I was. And it's not like I don't have much weight to lose, at 122 kg, I am at least 30kg above the ideal weight for my height.

    So far, Sydney has not given me a tough time but reports say that Sydney could face the hottest three days of summer from Friday. Fingers crossed!

    7kw of solar panels + big bastard aircon at home is awesome for this time of year. When the sun is beating down on the really hot days I don't use a jot of electricity with the aircon blasting. Don't help much at night tho :-)

    At least its off peak power after 10pm.

      Get a battery so it let you through the night. If I wake up hot the air son goes on! Tesla battery for the win

        Obviously you don't have a battery. The price/w/h is ridiculously to expensive. When the price is halved and capacity is doubled then it will be great. But even then if you don't have solar panels it's a pointless endeavor. When they are priced right everyone else will be doing it as well so off peak wont really exist.

        Last edited 10/02/17 12:46 pm

    If you're in Sydney - I apologise - I think this may be my fault.

    Earlier this year I was commenting to the other half about how Sydney seems to miss most of the nasty heatwaves that some of the other states have had over the last few years.

    I also mentioned other extreme weather events like floods so you might want to get yourself a boat.

    You know you've had an fairly hot summer when you're fairly blase about 3 days of potentially around 40 degrees.

    So blame the populace. I was surprised to find some idiot moving in next door from southern states insisting we cut down our trees because they were 'blocking the flow of air'. Given he had a solid tin fence erected he was most definatly an idiot. Unfortunately the idiots are taking over. I suggest evictions in sydney and melbourne and you all be forced into central Australia under charge of treason to grow a square mile of rainforest each.

    This headline is misleading, because some states such as WESTERN AUSTRALIA are not in a heat wave. Typical eastern states bias forgetting that they think they are the only states in Australia.

    Bubble wrap on windows apparently acts like a second glaze so long as it's sealed.

    heatwave.. I like it's been altered to mean three or more days given it is not defined as 5+ days elsewhere and used to be 7. Basically now every little uptick can be classified as a heatwave and when comparing the 'number of heatwaves per year' to scare people, you can show far more in later years than in earlier, even when earlier 7+ day heatwaves were killing people and forcing the emergency evacuations of towns in the 1800's and 1930's.

    Watch as in years to come 'heatwave' is redefined again to be 2 days and all the youngsters born in that era howl and panic every time the media breathlessly intone the weather predictions for the future.. and neglect to mention stuff like WA's September record low T.

    Now a few facts - "But if the air outside is already 37c or higher, your body can no longer get rid of that excess heat" isn't entirely true unless you ignore how evaporation works. People work in hothouses with temps up to 65C and outdoor environs of 53C and with airflow or low humidity, it's perfectly possible to stay cool. basically - keep air flowing over you to ensure your natural aircon works.

    Next, eating/drinking cold things can work, sometimes. As keeps showing, those Africans, Asians and Indians who live in hot climes aren't as stupid as they look when they eat hot chili dishes, hot meals and drink hot tea to cool down. A nice cold drink may seem clever to us, but our physiology isn't homogeneous - our body's priority is maintaining a static core temperature .. so dumping a glassful of iceblocks into our core is going to do one thing, send our body into a panic to rapidly warm up that spot we just made cold - and it'll do that by ramping up metabolism and generating more heat - not what you want, not one bit. However hot foods only work if you can evaporate the sweat. So yeah, a hot coffee in front of a fan is fine, a cool drink in humid conditions is fine - it depends on making a sensible decision based on the humidity of the environment

    Here is how to help, everyone. If you have a fridge, turn it off for the three peak hours plus one more. The icebox will keep the temp down inside if you keep the door shut. That will help the power stations avoid shutdowns.

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