Australia’s extreme heat has a deadly history

Ben Wilkie

Many Australians — and particularly those living in western New South Wales and inland South Australia — are currently sweltering through a four-day heatwave.

A high-pressure system has been sitting above southern Queensland and northern New South Wales for a number of weeks, preventing frontal systems from flushing out the hot air. Residents in many inland towns have been experiencing successive days of temperatures above 40 degrees. This is occurring within forecasts of a drier, hotter few months for most of south-east Australia, and on the back of a year of extreme weather events.

State government health services have been diligent, issuing warnings about the dangers of excessive heat and advice for ways to reduce the health impacts of extreme heat events. The prominence of these alerts on social media has given some pause for thought about the history of excessive heat in Australia and its impact on the population, including Australian columnist Chris Kenny:

The short answer to that question is, many people didn’t survive this kind of excessively hot weather in the past — and many people still don’t. In fact, in the twentieth century, more people died due to the effects of heatwaves in Australia than from any other natural disaster. Since 1971, the duration and frequency of heatwaves has increased, and the number of excessively hot days has doubled — an effect of global warming and climate change.

The worst events so far — that we know of — occurred at the end of the nineteenth century, on the eve of the Second World War, in the summer of 1959, and during the high temperatures that also contributed to the Black Saturday bushfires in 2009. Indeed, it was the 2009 event that led to social, health, and emergency services stepping-up their efforts to combat and reduce the impacts of heatwaves.

Significant heat events in Australia, 1844–2011. Source.

Event Area Recorded deaths
January–February 1879 NSW, Vic 22
October 1895–January 1896 WA, SA, Vic, Qld, NSW 435
January 1906 NSW, SA 28
January 1908 Vic, SA, NSW 213
January 1939 NSW, Vic, SA 420
January 1940 Qld, NSW 65
February 1955 Perth (WA) 30
January–February 1959 Melbourne (Vic) 145
January 1960 Greater Sydney (NSW) 25
January 2000 Southeast Qld 22
January–February 2009 Vic, SA 432

The 1896 heatwave was recently the subject of some contention. In 2014, the Nationals MP George Christensen called for an inquiry into the Australian Bureau of Meteorology’s historical climate records. He argued that the 1896 event cast doubt on claims about more recent record temperature maximums. “How could it be getting hotter … if it was really hotter 118 years ago,” he said. “It’s relatively simple: the early years are simply wiped from the official record.”

The reality is rather less sensational. As Neville Nichols and Sophie Lewis explained, “the Bureau’s official temperature records start in 1910 – before that date we have good grounds for believing that the data are poor and biased (and would be difficult to adjust for the many problems).”

The accuracy or otherwise of temperature records aside, however, there is no doubt that the 1896 heatwave killed many in Australia and caused widespread disruptions. As one newspaper from New South Wales reported in January of that year:

The long continuance of the unprecedented heat wave in New South Wales is proving a very serious matter to the residents in some of the districts, especially in the western portion of the colony. Over 135 deaths from heat apoplexy have occurred in New South Wales, and to this number Bourke has already contributed 40.

Indeed, residents of Bourke experienced 18 days of temperatures over 43 degrees in that month alone, with a peak of nearly 50 degrees.

As governments respond to such emergencies now, local authorities did their best to ameliorate the effects of the heat. The report continues to note that “The matter has become so serious that the railway authorities have commenced running trains at special cheap fares, to enable the residents to seek a cooler climate, and a great number are availing themselves of the opportunity.”

Health authorities, too, became overwhelmed with residents suffering from the effects of the prolonged heat: “In many parts, to add to the difficulties of situation, the water supply is running short and typhoid fever and kindred diseases are very prevalent. The hospitals are all full of patients, suffering either from fever or sun-stroke.”

Beyond health effects, however, heatwaves have wide-ranging effects on agriculture and other rural industries. As the 1896 report observed:

To farmers and graziers the continued heat is proving very serious, the feed being withered up, tanks dry, and horses, sheep, and cattle dying by hundreds, and many settlers’ homes have been destroyed by the bush fires. Never in the history of New South Wales has such a continuance of fierce heat been known.

Overall, researchers argue that since 1844 heatwaves in Australia have killed at least 5332 people. Some patterns emerge from the data. While the total number of heat-related deaths has been highest in Victoria and New South Wales, South Australia has historically had the highest death rate (per 100,000 population).

Deaths have tended to occur in January and December, and, it turns out, most deaths have occurred on January 27. In the nineteenth century, those who died were usually outside working; in the twentieth century, deaths increasingly occurred among people outside for recreation. The most common vulnerability, now as it was then, has been age.

The Climate Council now tells us that global warming and climate change are increasing the intensity and frequency of heatwaves in Australia, which are becoming hotter, lasting longer and occurring more frequently. Record-breaking temperatures and heatwaves are expected to increase in the future, they say. Although historic records indicate that the overall number of people dying as a result of excessive heat events in Australia has gradually declined over the century, climate change and its associated extreme weather may mean that the deadly history of heatwaves in Australia is far from over.

Ben Wilkie is an environmental and social historian at Deakin University, and he manages The Fifth Continent.

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