Australia heat wave reaches new highs

2014-01-09 15:41
A female lion eats a frozen milk iceblock in its enclosure at the Taronga Zoo in Sydney. (Manan Vatsyayana, AFP)

A female lion eats a frozen milk iceblock in its enclosure at the Taronga Zoo in Sydney. (Manan Vatsyayana, AFP)

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Canberra - Bats are dropping from trees, kangaroos are collapsing in the Outback and gardens are turning brown. While North America freezes under record polar temperatures, the southern hemisphere is experiencing the opposite extreme as heat records are being set in Australia after the hottest year ever.

Weather forecasters in Australia said some parts of the sparsely populated Pilbara region along the rugged northwest coast on Thursday were approaching 50°C. The record high of 50.7°C was set in 1960 in Oodnadatta, South Australia state.

Outback resident Gian Tate, aged 60, spends much of the day soaking in a small wading pool at her home near Emu Creek in the Pilbara region, a remote area off the electric grid. The thermometer outside her home registered 50°C on Wednesday, she said. Tate and her husband rely on two electric fans to cope with the oven-like heat and rarely turn on the small air conditioner in their bedroom because of the high cost of fuel to run their generator.

"We've just got to live with it; there's nothing you can do", she said.

Brazil is also sizzling, with the heat index reaching 49°C. Zookeepers in Rio de Janeiro were giving animals ice pops to beat the heat.

Hottest year

The late arrival of the monsoon in northern Australia, which has a cooling effect, is contributing to the searing heat, said Karly Braganza, the manager of climate monitoring at the bureau of meteorology. Global warming also is playing a role, he said.

So far, this year's heat wave, which started around Christmas and has moved counter-clockwise across Australia's north is likely to continue to move toward the South Australia state.

"Certainly looking at the forecast over the next week, it's looking like that heat is going to continue," he said.

Since 27 December, records have been set at 34 locations across Australia, some by large margins where temperature data has been collected for at least 40 years mostly in Queensland and New South Wales states. In the mining town of Narrabi in New South Wales, the new record of 47.8°C exceeded the previous record by 3.6°C

The extreme temperatures come on the heels of Australia's hottest year on record, beating the previous record year of 2005, with mean temperatures 1.2°C above the 1961-90 average.

Meanwhile, a deep freeze gripping large swathes of the United States started to ease slightly after low temperature records were shattered in numerous locations. In Atlanta, the mercury fell to -14°C, and at Washington Dulles International airport it sank to -17°C, eclipsing the 1988 mark of -13°C.


The heat wave in Australia has taken a toll on wildlife, too.

In Winton, famous for being one of the hottest spots in Queensland and also the place where Australia's unofficial anthem Waltzing Matilda was penned, a "large number" of parrots, kangaroos and emus have recently been found dead in the parched landscape, said Tom Upton, chief executive of Winton Shire Council.

"That's as much to do with the extended dry as it is with the heat wave", he said.

At least 50 000 bats had been killed by the heat in the state's southeast, said Louise Saunders, president of the Queensland animal welfare group bat conservation and rescue.

Heat-stressed bats, including the black flying foxes, little red flying foxes and the endangered gray-headed flying foxes cling to trees and urinate on themselves in a bid to reduce their body temperatures, she said.

"As they succumb, they just fall in heaps at the base of trees", Saunders said. "You can have 250 or more, it's like dripping chocolate all dying at the base of trees."

"It's an enormous animal welfare concern", she added.

At Emu Creek, Tate says the leaves have gone brown in her garden, despite watering. The heat keeps her awake at night.

It also makes her husband's job of hunting kangaroos at night easier because they gather around wells that provide water for cattle. (Kangaroo meat is sold to consumers in Australia)

"You don't have to hunt them", she said. "Every single kangaroo at night time would be around the water."

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