Jul 15, 2011

‘Most of Australia’ can expect more than 50 degrees by end of century

If all the commitments made by governments around the world to reduce greenhouse gas were honoured, and that is all, then temperatures by 2100 would likely be about four degrees warmer than 1900, writes David Spratt, climate change analyst and author of Climate Code Red.

While pensioners on talkback debate the impact of a mooted carbon tax on their household budget, Julia Gillard wears out her shoe leather, and Tont Abbott sniffs another dead fish, another kind of carbon conference has been rolling out. Over the past three days, Australian and international experts have gathered at Melbourne University to consider "Four degrees or more: Australia in a hot world".  In opening the conference, keynote speaker Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute, and former climate adviser to the German Chancellor and the EU, asked rhetorically: "What is the difference between two degrees (of temperature increase) and four degrees ?" His answer was concise. "The difference," he said, "is human civilisation". Previously, in March 2009, Schellnhuber had told the Copenhagen science conference that in a four-degree warmer world the population "… carrying capacity estimates (are) below 1 billion people".  Little wonder that the notion that humans might reasonably adapt to a four-degree warmer world seems absurd. Professor Tony McMichael, a world-leading authority on the impacts of climate change on human health, told the conference that "if we were to move to a world that was four five, six or seven degrees warmer, I think that what we imagine to be our adaptive strategies will become irrelevant." One reason is not just the world would be significantly hotter on average, but the extremes would be beyond the experience of most people and most nations. So how hot will hot be? One answer comes from Andreas Sterl and 10 colleagues from the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute and the Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research at Utrecht University. In "When can we expect extremely high surface temperatures?", they ask how extreme would temperatures be at end of this century if the global average temperature were to increase by 3.5 degrees by 2100 compared to 2000. And 3.5 degrees warmer than 2000 is where we are presently heading. If all the commitments made by governments around the world to reduce greenhouse gas were honoured, and that is all, then temperatures by 2100 would likely be about four degrees warmer than 1900, or about 3.4 degrees warmer than at the start of the 21st century. Sterl and his team project what the hottest that could be expected in a 100-in-a-hundred-year event, known at a T100 value. Or to be precise, "the annual-maximum 2m-temperature that on average occurs once in 100 years" (temperature two metres above the surface). Statistically, such an event may not happen in a 100 years, but it may also happen more than once, as we saw last summer in a series of  "100-in-a-hundred-year" rain and flood events in eastern Australia.

Sterl’s findings are displayed on the map. The deep-red colouring most of Australia is the range between 48 and 52 degrees. The remainder in deep orange is 44-48 degrees. By way of comparison, Australia highest recorded temperature was 50.7 degrees on January 2, 1960 at Oodnadatta, South Australia. Extreme heatwaves across southern Australia during late January/early February 2009 set a Melbourne maximum temperature record of 46.4 degrees, and a state maximum temperature records for Victoria of 48.8 degrees at Hopetoun, and drove the Black Saturday bushfires, which were the worst on record. As the authors note, "According to this figure, temperature extremes reach values around 50 degrees in large parts of the area equatorward of 30 degrees. This includes heavily populated areas like India and the Middle East ... projected T100 values far exceed 40 degrees in Southern Europe, the US Mid-West by 2090-2100 and even reach 50 degrees in north-eastern India  and most of Australia. Such levels receive much too little attention in the current climate change discussion, given the potentially large implications.” Prof David Karoly of Melbourne University, in addressing future fire risk in Australia at Oxford's "4 Degrees and Beyond" conference in September 2009, concluded: “We are unleashing hell on Australia.” In Melbourne this week, that message was reaffirmed in an array of evidence from many of the leading researchers in their fields.

Free Trial

You've hit members-only content.

Sign up for a FREE 21-day trial to keep reading and get the best of Crikey straight to your inbox

By starting a free trial, you agree to accept Crikey’s terms and conditions


Leave a comment

24 thoughts on “‘Most of Australia’ can expect more than 50 degrees by end of century

  1. Tom McLoughlin

    Three years back Prof Hansen at NASA gave compelling advice that if we trip over various tipping points:

    – like release of massive methane stores in the frozen tundra;
    – the ocean reaches saturation of CO2 storage;
    – albedo effect of more dark surfaces from melted ice in West Antarctic; or
    – God know what else (there was a list of about 10);

    there is a real possibility of a 5 metre sea rise by end of the century.

    Not along a constant increase, but exponential curve. So it will be low for decades, gradually increasing in rate (which is the critical indicator of a profound impact coming – like a 4WD in neutral at the top of a steep decline, it will end in tears), until by about 2070 or 2080 or so, when we get the big 1 and 2 metre jumps per decade and top the 5 m mark around 2100.

    So the skeptics can run their politics for quite a while but the momentum for increased sea level will be in the system and then denial and limp policy will be like cancer patients on homeopathy.

    If that happens, which it well could, all the Abbotts, all the Bolts, Jones, Carters, Lindzens and Moncktons today will be a hollow irrelevance in the clamour of desperation for survival. Amongst the cannibalism, the depravity, the murderous violence and cruelty. A world of dangerous slums and short brutal lives.

    Legends will be told about these fools like street signs on the way to dystopia. Humanity will curse them in their flooded graves.

    It’s also pretty clear that Abbott hates the Carbon tax policy because it integrates with global momentum for action with international offsets, which will sideline his multi national corporate mates pretty much forever.

    Last but not least all of this means Abbott is a very bad Catholic in my Irish Catholic opinion. Will the Vatican take a view on the Australian Government policy? If they do it will be Abbott sans speedos.

  2. Harvey Tarvydas

    Dr Harvey M Tarvydas

    David Spratt thanks, and you are right, the fools are always at the bar ordering one last beer as the burning pub crashes down on them.

    TOM McLOUGHLIN — Posted Friday, 15 July 2011 at 4:43 pm
    Well written interesting piece.
    Hey and, New medical discovery:- New Social Cancer – Name: RS Tony Abbott. Known Facts: no homeopathy cure known. Doesn’t respond to any known drugs.

  3. Chris Wilson

    It’s interesting that a T100 will be 50 degrees, but it doesn’t help the average person to understand how difficult, or otherwise, life will be most of the time. Presumably Black Saturday was one of the days at the top end of the current T100 range. It was 47 degrees at Macedon, where I lived at the time, and it was f**king hot, but it was livable, if scary. Luckily the fires didn’t come near me, and that was the case for most of the people in Melbourne and surrounds. And it was one day in an otherwise ordinary summer.

    So what would a typical summer be like if temperatures are 3-4 degrees higher? Will Melbourne be like Adelaide, where 1.5 million people live reasonably comfortably, or will it be much worse?

  4. Iskandar

    Only two comments so far on the real issue; global warming, and up to now 49 on Bernard Keane’s piece about consequences of repeal of a carbon pricing scheme, and many of those consisting of ignorant insulting blather. It shows how easy it is to bury ones head in the sand of shallow denialism, and how challenging to confront reality. That stupid old woman who confronted PM Gillard in the shopping centre is a typical example.

    What about, Crikey, starting a column inviting readers to report their personal experience of changing climate, and see what sort of responses come in. I will start with one of my own.

    I presently live in Fremantle, Western Australia, and have now lived for some 40 years in the Perth area and the south-west of WA. This story is about Perth summers, which are becoming unbearable.

    Historically Perth summer days consisted of morning easterlies, followed by dry, hot mid-days, followed by a cooling afternoon sea breeze off the ocean, the famous Fremantle Doctor. Well, I’ve noticed over the last handful of years that the pattern has changed. The sea breeze rarely comes in any more. Instead, day after day we have a slow-moving “trough of low pressure” along the west coast, essentially an belt of tropical air extending south from the tropics. It is overcast gray, gaspingly hot (mid-30’s), high humidity and deathly still. Years ago I used to get through hot nights with a fan only, but now have three air conditioners in the house, and need them to get through both day and night when this pattern is in place.

    This last summer Perth installers could barely keep up with the demand for condensor-type air conditioners, as the cheaper evaporative models many people have do not function in high humidity. It might be informative to compile sales records for the last few years to see if there is a trend.

    So this is one of my stories; there are others. Does any one else have theirs?

  5. wayne robinson


    I’d have to look back at the records, but I have a different experience of Perth weather. I don’t remember the last Summer as being particularly hot ( the record sales of air conditioners probably has more to do with the falling prices). Last Summer, I didn’t use the AC, just a fan. It’s my impression that the Winters are becoming warmer and also drier. I haven’t had to have any heating on for at least 10 years. 30 years ago, temperatures of 45C in Summer and 2C or less in Winter weren’t unusual.

    Of course, Perth being on the coast, is going to have the AGW moderated by the ocean. I still aspire to ocean front living. A sea level rise of 25 metres should just about do it.

  6. AR

    Just to give a wider view, 2010 in NW Ireland was the hottest, driest summer any of the elderly neighbours had ever experienced. From early April to early July there fell NOT A DROP of rain, barely any dew and everybody who could be bothered managed two cuts of hay before the quality fell in August, which had fewer than two or three rainfalls and NO ‘soft irish days’ when the air is full of rain so light but thick that one can’t see the byre.
    Autumn remained dry beyond record then, despite lack of air moisture, a freezing spell, a single snowfall of almost a metre which then remained, wind eroded only, temperatures dropping to -10C for a fortnight in November, quick freeze then resumed in December for another fortnight. Even when the temperature rose above freezing in January, the ice just lay around until eroded, rather than melting.
    Now one might think that northern Europeans would take this sort of thing in their stride but on the Continent it was even colder, for longer and chaos ensued becuase of the short-termism of modern commercialism, esp the “just-in-time” stocking of supamarts. Food riots were hours away, even in stolid Britain.
    I’m told this year is back to the usual manky, rain & overcast days but few are not convinced of massive long term change.
    One of the tip-over points is the slightest disruption to the Gulf Stream running northwards up the Atlantic coast of Ireland which ameliorates the temperatures one might expect from the latitude, further north than Berlin.

  7. LisaCrago

    I don’t care bout another wako scare mongeringprediction about future weather patterns.
    With the current geopolitical instability we are not likely to still be here in 100 years.
    Then we can all get back to nuke cold/hot war fear; real fear.
    Maybe the Secretary General of the UN will stop calling Global Warming the most importent issue for the UN recliaming peace as the most important issue for mankind.

  8. wayne robinson


    If I were you, I’d be more concerned about my illiteracy and my inability to spell, let alone the ability to string together a cogent sentence.

    Besides religious conflicts, wars resulting from climate collapse are the most likely threat to world peace.

    The popular revolutions in the Middle East, Egypt in particular, were caused by adverse weather conditions, such as in Russia, which had a disastrous wheat harvest, and therefore stopped exporting wheat, resulting in a spike in the global wheat price. So it made the price of bread (a staple food) in Egypt very expensive, precipitating unrest.

    Imagine what would happen if due to climate change, this was magnified many times, with unpredictable droughts and heat waves. Many countries are buying up farm land in other countries already to try to ensure future food security.

    I don’t know about you, but I’d be upset if in 100 years, there wasn’t someone around to ‘remember Elvis’.

  9. Stevo the Working Twistie

    Thanks @LISACRAGO. I’m going to keep a copy of your outstanding contribution, so that any time I’m tempted to think that denialists are rational, thinking individuals, you can set me straight.

  10. malcolm

    Lisa lets imagine a rise in sea level of only a couple of meters and the effect that will have on a country like Bangla Desh. Bangla Desh is largely a delta and regularly vast areas of land are flooded now. With only a relatively small rise in sea level most of it will disappear under the water permanently. This will result in the displacement of millions of people. Where do you think they will go and who do you think is going to allow them to move onto land already occupied and used by other people. This kind of scenario will happen all over the world. Even without the loss of any agricultural land like the cereal growing regions of the world that is being predicted this will result in widespread political disruption and war. That is not a world I want my grand children having to deal with. Tackling climate change is a peace issue.

Share this article with a friend

Just fill out the fields below and we'll send your friend a link to this article along with a message from you.

Your details

Your friend's details