Climate Change

The Potentially Devastating Effects Of Australia’s Heat Waves

Australia is known for its hot climate, yet the frequency of its extreme heat waves is increasing each year and having a hugely negative impact on its wildlife. A study completed in 2015 found that from 2000 to 2014, Australia set 12 heat records for every 1 cold record. While this may seem normal, to give some perspective, from the years 1910 to 1960, waves of extreme hot and extreme cold temperatures were equally as common.

Studies have also concluded that by 2040, extreme heat waves could bring temperatures of up to 50 degrees Celsius in Melbourne and Sydney. 50 degrees C is the equivalent of 122 degrees Fahrenheit, which is hot enough to melt asphalt, so for this to be a regular occurrence could be devastating.

One of the potentially devastating effects of Australia’s heat waves is on the health of the population. Local experts say that heat waves result in 10% more calls for ambulances and 10% more deaths. Another effect is on the infrastructure, and materials like asphalt which are used on road surfaces become “soft and sticky” in such high temperatures which can potentially cause road accidents and severe disruptions.

Wildlife suffer from such high temperatures too, and 50 degrees C is almost unbearable for many species. Animal specialist Kristie Harris told the BBC that, “Anytime we have any type of heat event, we know we’re going to have a lot of animals in need.” Kristie also noted that heat waves with such extreme temperatures leads to possums burning their paws on roofs and the roads, birds needing special care for rehydration, and koalas needing to be sprayed down to help them stay cool.

heat wave flying fox batMore tragically, hundreds of flying fox bats recently died from exposure to the extreme heat. In the words of animal rescuers in Sydney, the scenes of dozens of dead baby bats piled on the ground was “heartbreaking”.

A charity organization in Campbelltown, which is home to many colonies of flying foxes, recalled that during the recent extreme heat spell, a lot of baby bats were left dangling in the trees with no way of shading or protecting themselves when the adults went to seek out shade. The babies unfortunately couldn’t survive the heat, so many died in the trees, while others were found scattered on the ground.

The potentially devastating effects of Australia’s heat waves isn’t just limited to humans, infrastructure, or land animals either. Marine life is suffering too. In the northern Great Barrier Reef, studies show that the increasing temperatures are turning green turtle populations almost completely female. If this continues, the Current Biology paper states that the population of more than 200,000 nesting females in this area could eventually crash without more males, which would have a devastating effect on the overall health of the species.

green sea turtle in heatThe reason extreme heat has an impact on the turtle population is because temperature is what determines the gender of sea turtles during incubation. When the eggs in the nest are warmer, this results in more females, and so with more frequent periods of extreme heat this has a direct impact on the sex of the population.

Dermot O’Gorman, CEO of WWF Australia, notes that Australians, in particular, would no doubt be devastated if climate change were to impact one of the nation’s most loved species.

Speaking about the effect of climate change on nature, he said, “First back-to-back mass coral bleaching and now we find that virtually no male northern green turtles are being born. These impacts show that the Great Barrier Reef really is at the frontline of climate change. Australia must adopt ambitious climate change targets that will save the Reef and its unique creatures.”

Fortunately, though, all is not lost. Now that scientists have identified that these extreme heat waves are what is causing fewer male green turtles to be born in the northern Great Barrier Reef, they can try to find practical solutions that will help the turtles and prevent this imbalance. O’Gorman noted, “One possibility is a shade cloth erected over key nesting beaches, like at Raine Island, to lower nest temperatures to produce more males.”

It’s evident that there are many potentially devastating effects of Australia’s heat waves, and climate change is one of the key reasons that extreme heat spells are more frequent than extreme cold spells. Conservationists are now tasked with figuring out how they can help save bats, turtles, and other wildlife throughout these intense heat waves, so that they don’t threaten the existence of these wonderful species in the years to come.

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Alison Wheatley

Alison Wheatley

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