Climate change will soon see Melbourne and Sydney swelter through 50-degree days, a new study warns.
The study, published in Geophysical Research Letters, found that even if the Paris Agreement global warming targets are met Australia will experience “unprecedented extreme temperatures” by 2050.
It paints a dire picture of what life will be like in the coming decades, but climate scientists say blistering heatwaves could be the least of our concern.
“We looked at what might happen in Australia under the Paris warming limits, so 1.5 to two degrees of global warming, and we found that even under those limits, we will see really dramatic changes in the extremes that will occur in Australia,” lead author from Australian National University Sophie Lewis told The New Daily.
“Particularly when we look at daily temperatures in Australian states, we found there’s going to be extreme temperatures that are well beyond what we are already seeing.
“We’re expecting that a lot of places across Australia are going to increase in temperature and enhanced extremes.”
In our current climate, global average temperatures have increased by 1.1 degrees since pre-industrial times due to greenhouse gases.
And while it doesn’t sound like much of a rise, it has already had a significant impact on Australia’s climate, Dr Lewis said.
“What we’ve already seen is if global average temperatures go up what seems like a low amount we also see at the local or regional scale really large changes in the extremes,” she said.
“The extremes do not scale with the averages. We’re seeing some places increase three-fold (3.8 degrees) in extremes compared to the averages.”
The current temperature records in Sydney and Melbourne are 45.8C (January 18, 2013) and 46.4C (February 7, 2009 – Black Saturday) respectively.
‘We are setting ourselves up for a nasty future’
Researchers say temperatures could go even higher if current global warming emissions push above the Paris accord limits.
“We are tracking above the two degrees, and we are heading towards 3C or even higher by the end of the century,” Dr Lewis said.
This means we would see there is even more severe and more frequent extreme heat, and “if we continue on our current trajectory then we are really setting ourselves up for a nasty future”, she said.
Melbourne University climate scientist and study author Andrew King echoed the statement, saying these unprecedented future extremes pose “major problems” on Australia and the world as a whole.
Dr King said we would see more hospital admissions of young and elderly people, greater demand on emergency services, and more severe and extended bushfire seasons. There would also be increased Great Barrier Reef bleaching, strains on infrastructure, transport, schools and electricity supply, as well as an increase in heat-related fatalities.
“It’s the harsh reality of the fact that we’ve changed the climate, we can expect more severe heat extremes. This is a very real threat to Australia,” Dr King told The New Daily.
Dramatic greenhouse gas reduction required
While it is too late to reverse the effects of climate change completely, Dr Lewis said there is still time to reduce the severity of extremes through bigger cuts in our greenhouse gas emissions.
“We not only have to reduce our emissions quickly we also have to start preparing for these challenges and not ignore what might have in the next few decades,” Dr Lewis said.
“We have to accept that some warming is inevitable and that will have some consequences but we can meet that challenge.”