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Welcome to the heat dome

Over the past few weeks a slow-moving weather event has led to record high temperatures across North America.This kind of event is known as a heat dome, and it’s breaking existing models that try to predict the weather.

Over the past few weeks a slow-moving weather event has led to record high temperatures across North America.

This kind of event is known as a heat dome, and it’s breaking existing models that try to predict the weather.

Today, journalist for The Saturday Paper Max Opray on why this particular heat even is alarming climate scientists, and what it means for the next Australian summer.


Guest: Journalist for The Saturday Paper, Max Opray.

Show Transcript

[Theme Music Starts]

RUBY:
From Schwartz Media I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

 

Over the past few weeks a slow-moving weather event has led to record high temperatures across North America.

 

This kind of event is known as a heat dome, and it’s breaking existing models that try to predict the weather.

 

Today, journalist for The Saturday Paper Max Opray on why this particular heat is alarming climate scientists, and what it means for the next Australian summer.

 

It’s Wednesday, July 28.

[Theme Music Ends]

RUBY:
Max, can you tell me a bit about the extraordinary weather events that we've seen in North America in the last few weeks? It is summer there, but did we see this coming? 

 

MAX:
To put it bluntly Ruby, no one really saw this one coming. At first, scientists didn't actually believe the temperature forecasts. 

 

Archival tape -- Erika Fleishman:
“These temperatures are just really, really extraordinary. This seems to stretch credulity a little bit.” 

 

MAX:
I spoke with Erika Fleishman, director of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute. 

 

Archival tape -- Erika Fleishman:

“This is not something that the region is prepared for. It's not something that the region, one would expect the region to be prepared for.”

 

MAX:
And she actually wondered if something was wrong with the modelling about a week out from the first heat wave. She realised that the signals were too consistent and the forecast was right. This was really going to happen.

Archival tape -- Erika Fleishman:
“And as the output stayed consistent over time and the forecast window became shorter, there was sort of, I think, a realisation that this may not be an outlier in terms of the modelling that this actually may come to pass.”

RUBY:
OK, so what is it that's happening on the ground? How high have the temperatures gotten and what are we seeing as a result of that extreme heat? 

 

MAX:
What we've been seeing across North America since late June is record shattering temperatures from Mexico right up to the Arctic Circle. 

 

So normally when temperature records are broken, it's by a tenth of a degree, which is still a major event. In Canada, the temperature record was shattered by five degrees to hit 49.6 in late June in the town of Lytton in British Columbia. 

 

Archival tape -- Reporter 1:

“Baking yet again tonight in a record smashing heatwave, one that's being called not just historic, but dangerous.”

 

MAX:
Days later, Lytton was obliterated by fires that are sweeping the western half of the continent.

 

Archival tape - [Fire and wind]

 

Archival tape -- Unknown Person 1:
“This way fast, let's get out of here!”

 

MAX:
Some of the fires are so large that smoke has been choking cities on the east coast of the US, such as in New York.

Archival tape -- Reporter 2:
"This is Central Park in New York, and this haze, you see, is smoke, it stinks. It is from wildfires that are 2,500 miles away…”

MAX:
There are estimates that over a billion sea creatures were cooked alive in the waters.

Archival tape -- Unknown Person 2:
“Most mussels around here now are all gone. It used to be alive. Now there's nothing…”

MAX:
And during the week, glaciers began to melt at an accelerating rate. 

 

Canada and the Pacific Northwest of the United States aren't used to hot summers and are really set up for extreme heat, air conditioning, for instance. Isn't that common.

Archival tape -- Reporter 3:
"Police in Vancouver have responded to more than 130 sudden deaths since Friday. Heat is thought to have been a contributing factor in most cases.”

 

MAX:
There were mass power outages and there was a huge spike in sudden deaths.

So once death certificates are issued, which might take several months, these numbers are expected to grow substantially. 

 

Summer isn't over yet in North America either, the hottest time of year is typically July and August and Forecasters are already warning of another heatwave to hit the same areas.

 

Scientists have warned that if this could happen in Canada, the global implications are ominous.
 

RUBY:
So let's talk a bit about that, about the global implications. Australia, it's a country that we know is prone to heat waves. So what are Australian scientists doing at the moment? Are they reassessing what might happen here as a result of what we're seeing in the U.S. now? 

 

MAX:
Yeah, they are Ruby, I spoke to Dr Sarah Perkins Kirkpatrick about this. She's the University of New South Wales expert on the link between climate change and heat waves. 

 

Archival tape -- Dr Sarah Perkins Kirkpatrick:
“And I analyse how they've changed over the observational record and in climate models and whether these trends are increasing, decreasing and also looking at different characteristics of heat waves…” 

 

MAX:
She's spent her career examining projections for temperature rises in the coming decades. So it's pretty hard to unsettle when it comes to talking about extreme weather. 

 

Archival tape -- Dr Sarah Perkins Kirkpatrick:

“Look for me studying heat waves basically forever, I'm not surprised to see that they had a really intense heat wave, but the sheer intensity of it, yes, that was surprising…”

 

MAX:
However, the past month of record shattering heat in North America has even her rattled. 

 

Archival tape -- Dr Sarah Perkins Kirkpatrick:
“Gosh, like, I was shocked, I was really surprised, like even for someone like me who's like, excuse me, but no shit sherlock heatwaves are getting worse. Yeah, it was really, it was quite heartbreaking to see.”

 

MAX:
She and the other climate scientists across the world are digesting the news that even their worst case projections may underestimate the severity of heatwaves to come.

 

Archival tape -- Dr Sarah Perkins Kirkpatrick:

“To see a temperature of almost 50 degrees Celsius at a latitude of 50 degrees, I didn't think that would be possible with just one degree of warming.”

 

MAX:
She says that although conditions in the Northern Hemisphere where, for instance, there's been extreme heat also in Scandinavia and Siberia, these conditions don't indicate whether Australia can expect a particularly hot summer this year. But they do throw into question how hot future heatwaves will get when we do get a hot summer. 

 

Archival tape -- Dr Sarah Perkins Kirkpatrick:
“And it's hard to say. Yeah, OK, so you know Canada and America are having an exceptionally bad summer now. We can't say that we'll have a bad summer this summer, but it's absolutely a given that, you know, one summer, if not more, in the next 10 to 20 years will be just as bad, if not worse than the summer we had in 2020. So it's not very good news.”

 

MAX:
She said, For all we know, Sydney could potentially experience 50 degree plus temperatures in the next decade or two. 

 

RUBY:
So what you're hearing then, Max, from these scientists is what's happening in the US it’s really creating a lot of uncertainty here in Australia. And these scientists they're extremely concerned about what that could mean?

 

MAX:
That's right. So it's a situation where we might need to put more funding into modelling to improve that and get a better understanding of where we're headed. 

 

Climate scientists I spoke to have suggested that the world hasn't really even begun to experience what we have in store and that things are only going to get worse unless we take drastic action to reduce carbon emissions. There's a kind of cognitive dissonance within society that scientists are really struggling to get their head around. That's the gap between what we're all talking about with climate change and what we're actually doing about the problem.

 

RUBY:
We’ll be back after this.

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RUBY:
Max, we've been talking about the heat wave in North America and the implications that that might have for us here in Australia, but can you tell me a bit more about what is actually causing that heat wave? Because it's quite a specific type of thing that we're seeing, isn't it? 

 

MAX:
Yeah, that's right. Ruby, this is something called a heat dome, which is a particular type of heatwave that is essentially a high pressure weather system that remains parked in place over a particular region, a bit like a lid on a pot. 

 

These types of heatwaves are not just extreme. They can last quite a long time, a really still heat that lingers day and night. So the areas of the US and Canada, for instance, that would normally enjoy mild summers because of cool ocean breezes coming in, those breezes just simply weren't able to enter the region. So we've seen heat domes hit Australia in the past. 

Archival tape -- Reporter 4:
“And Sydney was like an oven today, sweltering in the heat and choking on the fumes. By midday, many suburbs had hit 40 degrees and the city was smoked out.” 

MAX:
One settled over the continent in January 2019 when Australia registered its hottest month on record. 

Archival tape -- Reporter 5:
"Sydney on track to achieve its hottest spell in ten years, averaging at least 33 degrees for five consecutive days.” 

MAX:
The town of Bourke in north western New South Wales, recorded 21 days in a row above 40 degrees. So that's that kind of prolonged heat wave that just doesn't go away. 

 

Archival tape -- Reporter 6:
“The blistering back of Bourke, a tinder dry dust bowl, and today one of the hottest places on earth…”
 

MAX:
These types of weather events, like all extreme weather, will become much more frequent because of climate change. And this matters a lot because extreme heat is the deadliest form of extreme weather. 

 

In Australia, it's hard to record the true death toll from heat as it's often not listed as the main cause of death. But one study found that heat waves have caused more deaths than all other deaths from natural hazards combined. 

 

RUBY:
So given that then, Max, given how deadly heat waves are and the high likelihood of continuing to see more and and worse heat waves, what sorts of things are available to us to try and mitigate that risk, to stay safe when these things happen? 

 

MAX:
Well, as always, Ruby, with climate change, the first and foremost thing we need to do is reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The scientists I spoke to were emphatic that we still have the opportunity to avoid the worst of these heat waves if we do what is within our power, which is to transition to clean energy as fast as possible. 

 

But there are other things we can do to mitigate heat. So when the heat wave does come to make sure we're as comfortable as possible, we could build our homes better so they passively cool rather than relying on air conditioners.

 

We also need city planners to start rethinking how suburbs and city centres are designed. Green space is really important here as well. So we can avoid the urban heat island effect that sees cities actually rise to higher temperatures than country areas during heatwaves. 

 

RUBY:
So all of these are kind of ways to work around the problem, but we're not really addressing the cause. And the way you put it before is that there is this real cognitive dissonance happening here. Why do you think that is? And what would it take for that to change? 

 

MAX:
Well, it's something we've all sort of become used to these grim climate change projections that are always in the future and perhaps they've never seemed terribly real because there's something that's sort of speculated upon. But they're really starting to bite now. And it and they're becoming real for a lot of people around the world. Certainly in Australia, we've experienced that with our black summer. 

 

Fossil fuel companies have done a really effective job of stalling climate action and preventing the transitions that need to happen. But there certainly is momentum building to enact real change. 

 

RUBY:
Mm and the scientists that you spoke to for this story, do they feel that way? Do they feel that momentum? What would they like us to know about what's happening at the moment? 

 

MAX:
Well, I was struck by how a lot of these climate scientists had spent a lot of their careers sounding the alarm on this stuff, particularly the climate scientists in the northwest of the United States and in Canada, where they haven't experienced too much of the extremes of climate change. 


And they were quite unsettled by that, that these issues that they've been warning about have arrived. 

Archival tape -- Erika Fleishman:
“I think there are more discussions, more concerns about is this something that is going to continue? This isn't one weekend. It's not one fire. This is sustained.” 

MAX:
But they're also full of hope about the possibilities for reducing carbon emissions, for electing political parties that are willing to to act on climate and for the efforts that that can be made locally to to adapt to extreme heat conditions as well.

 

Archival tape -- Dr Sarah Perkins Kirkpatrick:
“So even if we don't limit our emissions to two degrees of global warming, even if we limit it to three instead of four, we really need to continue that momentum. And that's why I'm hopeful that there'll be some point, hopefully, hopefully in my lifetime, but hopefully a lot sooner than that. Maybe the next 10 to 20 years. Everyone, the governments go, oh, shit, we really need to start acting on this now. And yes, it will be a bit later than what we would like, but at least we're doing something that's what I'm hopeful about…”

 

RUBY:
Max, thank you so much for your time. 

 

MAX:
Thanks Ruby, much appreciated. 

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[Theme Music Starts]

RUBY:
 

Also in the news today..

 

Both Victoria and South Australia have started easing out of their lockdowns from today, but strict restrictions remain in place in both states.

In South Australia capacity at restaurants and venues will be limited and household gatherings will be restricted to 10 people.

In Victoria masks remain compulsory outdoors and indoors, and no household gatherings are permitted. Density limits will also apply to indoor venues.

Meanwhile New South Wales recorded 172 new cases of Covid-19 yesterday. It’s the highest daily figure recorded since the start of the current outbreak.

 

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am. See ya tomorrow.

[Theme Music Ends]

 

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