The challenge of adapting to climate change and heatwaves in Melbourne

Electricity transmission towers at Glenroy during January 2004 heatwave deaths. 167 people were attributed to have died due to this heatwave. Photo: John Englart

Electricity transmission towers at Glenroy during January 2004 heatwave deaths. 167 people were attributed to have died due to this heatwave.
Photo: John Englart

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group II in its latest report – Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability – highlights the growing impact of climate change both globally and regionally.

Resolving the climate change issue requires action by individuals, businesses and all levels of Government in Australia and globally.

Professor Glenn Albrecht, Director of the Institute for Social Sustainability at Murdoch University, WA commented on the IPCC report “The messages in the IPCC Working Group 2 Summary for Policymakers are clear, we need to remove the barriers for political change away from fossil fuel dependency. We must make a rapid transition to non-polluting renewable forms of energy. At the same time we need to acknowledge the urgent need to adapt to the changes we have already imposed upon ourselves.”

The challenge also involves educating for sustainability, whether in school programs, TAFE or University.

Melbourne Polytechnic has been developing a strong focus on sustainability in our education programs, whether in courses in Renewable Energy, Aquaculture and Environmental Management, HorticultureConservation and Land Management, the Bachelor of Accounting course with a strong focus on environmental accounting, or more traditional trade courses in building and engineering design.  The Green Skills Centre of Excellence on Epping Campus, completed in 2010, provides facilities for teaching many of our practical skill-based courses with a sustainability component.

Our Liberal Arts courses also offer the opportunity to discuss and research the challenges of climate change. Melbourne Polytechnic website administrator and Tertiary Studies student and blogger made a presentation and handout to his Academic Research class in March 2014 that outlines some of the recent science and the many challenges we face in Melbourne with heatwaves and climate change. The views expressed in this article are his own, and do not necessarily reflect endorsement by NMIT.

Abstract: In this presentation I focus on how climate change, through rising temperatures and heatwaves, is already impacting the urban and social environment in Melbourne. It is a problem we need to address now, that should concern you and me directly.

Greens Skills Centre of Excellence at Epping Campus. Photo: John Englart

Greens Skills Centre of Excellence at Epping Campus. Photo: John Englart

I have been reading and writing on climate change issues for 10 years.  For most people this is a distant issue to be concerned about sometime in the future, or it affects distant locations such as the Arctic, or Pacific Island nations; or it is felt that not much can be done at the individual level, so most people do not emotionally engage and instead focus on more immediate problems. (Roeser, S. 2012)

There is also a measure of confusion injected by those who vocally argue that global warming isn’t occurring, or if it is occurring it is an entirely natural process that we will adapt to in good time. These people confuse the issue with falsities and cherry picked data.( Washington and Cook 2011, Cook 2010) Others say we can geo-engineer to solve the problem, but there are substantial risks involved in geo-engineering and we risk making things worse in the process. (Englart 2014a)

I am not debating the existence of human caused climate change. The scientific evidence from multiple lines of research all indicate that humans have caused surface temperatures to warm globally 0.8 degree Celsius since 1880. For Australia the temperature has risen by 0.9C since 1910, according to the Australian State of the Climate Report 2014.(CSIRO and BOM 2014) If you want to read the evidence, read the  IPCC AR5 report on the physical science, one of the most comprehensive and closely scrutinised scientific reviews in any area of science so far undertaken.(IPCC 2013)

So, how hot is too hot? It was agreed at Copenhagen in 2009 to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius. Beyond that level we are likely to see abrupt climate change, pass tipping points whereby we will lose any semblance of being able to limit warming. Climate change will cause feedbacks producing a self-reinforcing runaway effect. (National Research Council 2013) To limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius we have to use this decade to reduce carbon emissions and make a transition to a low carbon economy and lifestyle. If we don’t succeed and we allow Business As Usual of continued mining and burning of coal and other fossil fuels we are heading to at least 4 degrees of warming by the end of this century. (Schellnhuber et al 2012)

Climate Change is causing more hot days, heatwaves for Melbourne

In Melbourne the greatest climate change impact is the rise in temperatures, the earlier start for hot spells and heatwaves, and their increased frequency and intensity. (Steffen, Hughes and Perkins 2014) More intense and frequent heatwaves also contribute to worsening fire weather conditions which can have a large impact on the urban fringe and surrounding bushland environments around Melbourne. (Hughes 2013)


City Long term average (1961-1990) 2000-2009 average 2030 projected 2070 projected (low emissions scenario) 2070 projected (high emissions scenario)
Melbourne 9.9 12.6 12 (11-13) 14 (12-17) 20 (15-26)
Sydney 3.4 3.3 4.4 (4.1-5.1) 5.3 (4.5-6.6) 8 (6-12)
Adelaide 17.5 25.1 23 (21-26) 26 (24-31) 36 (29-47)
Canberra 5.2 9.4 8 (7-10) 10 (8-14) 18 (12-26)
Darwin 8.5 15.7 44 (28-69) 89 (49-153) 227 (141-308)
Hobart 1.2 1.4 1.7 (1.6-1.8) 1.8 (1.7-2.0) 2.4 (2.0-3.4)

Table 1: The long-term annual average number of hot days (above 35°C) compared to the 2000 – 2009 average and the projected average number for 2030 and 2070 for some Australian capital cities. Source: Heatwaves: Hotter, Longer, More Often.

In Australia we are experiencing record temperatures and heatwaves with record intensity. (Keating and Handmer 2013) The Climate Council says that hot weather in Adelaide, Melbourne and Canberra has already reached levels predicted for 2030. (Steffen, Hughes and Perkins 2014) These hot spells and heatwaves are not a freak event but have been attributed to climate change. (Lewis and Karoly 2013,2014)

Heatwaves kill people, more than three times greater number than any other natural disaster, including bushfires. Only Epidemics exact a greater toll.(Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development. 2013, Ch4: Sustainability)

In urban areas like Melbourne, heatwaves and hot spells are further amplified by the Urban Heat Island effect. (Li and Bou-Zeid 2013) This can add several degrees of warming to local suburban temperatures depending upon the built environment, amount of vegetation canopy and open water and wetlands. Air-conditioning, an increasingly common way of adapting to higher temperatures, also results in a local warming feedback of 1-2 degrees. (de Munck et al 2013, Ohashi et al 2007, Hsieh Aramaki and Hanaki 2007) Great if you own your own home but not so good if you are poor, rent or are homeless. (Raymond 2010)

The Urban Heat Island effect is particularly important for raising night-time minimum temperatures resulting in many of the heat stress related deaths occurring over-night according to the de Munck study. Ron Grunstein, a Professor of Sleep Medicine at Sydney University argues in an article on The Conversation that sleep, particularly REM sleep, and body control of temperature (thermoregulation) in a 24 hour cycle are intimitely connected. Ambient temperature above about 23 degrees Celsius leads to disturbance which can reduce the themoregulation capacity of the body. (Grunstein 2013)

As we raise temperatures globally we will eventually pass heat stress physical limits to human adaptability. Sherwood and Huber (2010) showed that when the wet bulb temperature exceeds 35 °C for extended periods, dissipation of metabolic heat becomes impossible and hyperthermia in humans and other mammals results. The researchers stress that while these environmental conditions are very rare today, mean global warming of 7 degrees may bring the habitability of some regions into question. At 11 to 12 degrees of warming most of the world’s current population zones would be affected.

A recent study by Loughnan et al (2013) assessed environmental, demographic and health characteristics producing a heat vulnerability index, then mapped the heat vulnerability of Melbourne and other Australian cities down to the postcode level using Google.

The 2009 heatwave and hot spell events highlighted the direct and indirect effect on mortality through heat-stress related fatalities and in bushfire fatalities. The heatwave in 2009 caused 374 excess deaths while the Black Saturday bushfires caused 173 deaths. (Department of Human Services 2009) Heat related deaths are projected to rise, especially in Brisbane and Melbourne according to a report by PriceWaterhouseCoopers (2011). An additional 6214 deaths (or 402 deaths annually) by 2050 in Victoria alone may also be involved. This may amount to an additional $6.4 billion loss or $218 million per year.( Keating and Handmer 2013) The costs are mounting with every day of inaction.


Sub-sector Impact level Description Trigger point/threshold
Electricity High * Record Demand* Compromised supply* Reduced transmission efficiency and faults * Full operation & distribution capacity* Heat lowers performance
Gas Minimal Resilient No reported sensitivities
Generator Minimal * Impaired cooling for thermal stations* Reduced coal production on high risk days * Limits on available water for cooling* Risk of bushfire
Train High * 29 points of buckling lines* Air-con failure Signal equipment susceptible to heat
Trams Moderate Some trams failed Engines sensitive to heat
Buses Minimal Buses served as backup to trains Air con struggles above 35C

Table 2: Infrastructure impacts of 2009 heatwave in Melbourne. Source: PPT slide prepared by Climate Institute associated with report: Infrastructure Interdependencies and Business-level Impacts Report (2013).

Heatwaves will also inflict an economic cost in reduced productivity (Dunne, Stouffer and John 2013), as well as cause failures in infrastructure as temperature tolerances are exceeded. Electricity and transport sectors are particularly vulnerable which can result in cascading infrastructure failure with widespread social and economic impacts. (McEvoy, Ahmed and Mullett 2012, Reeves et al 2010, Nguyen, Wang and Chen 2010)

Urban wildlife and flora will also suffer, which may produce changes in ecosystems. Flying foxes are a signature species which have a temperature intolerance to heat at 41-42C which may impact ecosystem services such as pollination and seed dispersal. (Welbergen, Klose, Markus and Eby 2008)

Not covered in the presentation but of some relevance to local food security are winter heatwaves affecting agriculture such as the pome fruit industry from the Goulburn Valley. (Thomson et al 2014, Englart 2013a)


Long term solutions involve stabilising rising temperatures through making substantial and rapid reductions in carbon emissions this decade.(Climate Commission Secretariat 2011) The Climate Change Authority analysed comparative international climate action and recommended that Australia’s targets should be lifted from 5 per cent on 2000 levels to 15 percent on 2000 levels by 2020, with the addition of an extra 4 per cent saving that we have already achieved under the Kyoto Protocol.(Climate Change Authority 2014, Englart 2014c)

In Victoria this means transitioning from coal based energy to solar and wind, and perhaps ocean energy and geothermal in the future. (CSIRO 2012) Victoria currently produces about 90 per cent of electricity from brown coal which makes Victorians one of the most carbon intensive on a per capita basis in the world. (Arup 2014) Residential solar photovoltaics are still at a relatively low level of market installation with, for example, just 6 per cent of Moreland households and 7.2 per cent of Darebin households with solar panels. (Englart 2013b) The development of wind farms has also been limited due to wind farm planning regulations with wind contributing less than 3 per cent to Victoria’s electricity generating capacity according to former Commissioner for Environmental Sustainability Professor Kate Auty. (Green 2013) This compares with about 27 per cent wind farm capacity in South Australia (AEMO 2013).

Carbon certification in urban planning and urban development may also increase best practice for reducing carbon intensity in construction practices and provide better integration of walking, cycling and public transport infrastructure for a more sustainable living and working environment.(Rauland 2013)

We also need to adapt to a warmer climate by increasing the vegetation canopy in urban areas to counteract the urban heat island effect, better heatwave emergency planning and response as recommended by VCOSS (2013), increase building standards for energy efficiency and insulation, programs to retrofit older buildings.(Reeves et al 2010)

Many of these changes are political decisions based at the State Government level who are responsible for land management, regulation of electricity production, planning, public transport, building regulations and many more areas of responsibility. All of these areas could be significant in reducing emissions or changing carbon footprint behaviours.

Already many City Council’s have adopted climate action plans for reducing Council emissions and putting in place climate adaptation measures such as emergency response (Englart 2014b) or increasing the urban forest.(City of Melbourne 2012)

To reduce greenhouse gas emissions and stabilise temperature will require behavioural change by individuals, action by business and all three tiers of government. To not do so will result in more onerous climate and greater costs – amassing a huge climate debt for our later life and those who come after us as we progress through this century.

Explore Further

Three website tools you may find interesting to explore are:

  1. Dr Sarah Perkins has put together a website showing current and historical data on heatwaves across Australia:
  2. Margaret Loughnan and colleagues mapped heatwaves and social vulnerability with a website application. It allows you to zoom in and see at postcode district how vulnerable each suburb is.
  3. Calculate your carbon footprint. The average Australian Household emits about 14-19 tonnes of greenhouse gases every year. I have reduced mine to 3.2 tonnes per year. How do you rate?

Watch John Englart’s 20 slide Powerpoint presentation on Heatwaves, Climate Change and Melbourne on Slideshare. Click on the first slide below:

Powerpoint Presentation by John Englart to TER103 Academic Research subject

Powerpoint Presentation on Slideshare by John Englart to TER103 Academic Research subject


AEMO. 2013. South Australian Wind Study Report

Arup, Tom. 2014. Fire at Morwell reignites brown-coal debate. The Age (9 March 2014)  Viewed 25 March 2014

Australian Bureau of Meteorology. 2014. Annual climate statement 2013. Bureau of Meteorology website, viewed 21 March 2014.

City of Melbourne Council. 2012. Urban Forest Strategy. Making a great city greener 2012-2032. City of Melbourne.

Climate Change Authority. 2014. Reducing Australia’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Targets and Progress Review – Final Report. Australian Government.

Climate Commission Secretariat. 2011. The Critical Decade: Climate science, risks and responses. Australian Government, Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency

Climate Institute. 2013. Infrastructure Interdependencies and Business-Level Impacts Report.

Cook, John. 2010. 3 levels of cherry picking in a single argument. Skeptical Science website, viewed 23 March 2014

CSIRO. 2012. Ocean renewable energy: 2012-2050.

CSIRO and BOM. 2014. Australian State of the Climate Report 2014.

de Munck, C., Pigeon, G., Masson, V., Meunier, F., Bousquet, P., Tréméac, B., Merchat, M., Poeuf, P. and Marchadier, C. 2013. How much can air conditioning increase air temperatures for a city like Paris, France?. Int. J. Climatol., 33: 210–227.

Department of Human Services. 2009. January 2009 Heatwave in Victoria: an Assessment of Health Impacts. Victorian Government

Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development. 2013. Australian State of the Cities 2013. Australian Government

Dunne John P., Ronald J. Stouffer, & Jasmin G. John. 2013. Reductions in labour capacity from heat stress under climate warming. Nature Climate Change doi:10.1038/nclimate1827

Englart, John. 2013a. Winter Chill: Fruit and nut trees feeling the heat of global warming. (14 April 2013), Climate Citizen blog, viewed 23 March 2014

Englart, John. 2013b. Solar PV Panel installations in Fawkner exceed 5 per cent of dwellings. (12 December 2013) Sustainable Fawkner website. Viewed 22 March 2014

Englart, John. 2014a. Climate Geo-engineering study on sulphate injection shows Hydrological disruption to rain and severe drought. (11 January 2014) Climate Citizen blog, viewed 23 March 2014

Englart, John. 2014b. Moreland Council calling for greater heatwave emergency planning for Victoria. (14 February 2014) Climate Citizen blog, viewed 23 March 2014

Englart, John. 2014c. Climate Change Authority recommended Emissions reduction targets. (2 March 2014) Climate Citizen blog, viewed 23 March 2014

Green, Michael. 2013. Wind farms may be more acceptable in Victoria. Sydney Morning Herald (19 October 2013) Viewed 23 March 2014.

Grunstein, Ron. 2013. Too hot to sleep? Here’s why. The Conversation (8 January 2013) Viewed 23 March 2014.

Hsieh C-M, Aramaki T, Hanaki K. 2007. The feedback of heat rejection to air conditioning load during the nighttime in subtropical climate. Energy and Building 39: 1175–1182.

Hughes, Lesley and Steffen, Will. 2013. Be Prepared: Climate Change and the Australian Bushfire Threat. Climate Council report

IPCC Working Group I. Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis 2013. IPCC website, viewed 23 March 2014

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Lewis, S. C., and D. J. Karoly. 2014. Australia’s hottest year was no freak event: humans caused it. The Conversation, viewed 23 March 2014

Li, Dan and Elie Bou-Zeid. 2013. Synergistic Interactions between Urban Heat Islands and Heat Waves: The Impact in Cities Is Larger than the Sum of Its Parts*.J. Appl. Meteor. Climatol., 52, 2051–2064.

Loughnan, ME, Tapper, NJ, Phan, T, Lynch, K, McInnes, JA 2013, A spatial vulnerability analysis of urban populations during extreme heat events in Australian capital cities, National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility, Gold Coast, 128 pp.

McEvoy, Darryn, Iftekhar Ahmed and Jane Mullett, 2012, The impact of the 2009 heat wave on Melbourne’s critical infrastructure, Local Environment Vol. 17, No. 8, September 2012, 783 –796

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NCCARF and Monash University. 2013. Mapping Heatwave Vulnerability. Viewed 2 March 2014.

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Reeves, J., Colleen Foelz, Peter Grace, Peter Best, Torben Marcussen, Shahbaz Mushtaq, Roger Stone, Margaret Loughnan, Darryn McEvoy, Ifte Ahmed, Jane Mullett, Katharine Haynes, Deanne Bird, Lucinda Coates, Megan Ling, (2010). Impacts and adaptation response of infrastructure and communities to heatwaves: the southern Australian experience of 2009, NCCARF – National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility.

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Welbergen, J.A., Stefan M Klose, Nicola Markus and Peggy Eby. 2008. Climate change and the effects of temperature extremes on Australian flying-foxes. Proceedings of the Royal Society B Biological Sciences, doi: 10.1098/rspb.2007.1385

Photos of heatwave sun at Glenroy and NMIT Green Skills Centre of Excellence by John Englart

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About the author

John has been blogging on climate policy and renewable energy for over 10 years, as well as writing blog articles for the last 6 years with Melbourne Polytechnic.

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