... So that You may be kept informed

Vic: Southeast under strain as heatwave takes its toll

By Xavier La Canna
30 Jan 2009 3:06 PM
Eds: Reissuing and taking in Friday's record temperature into 12th para

MELBOURNE, Jan 30 AAP - As far as heatwaves go, the sweltering conditions in south-eastern Australia this week are remarkable.

Tens of thousands of people were left without power, train tracks buckled and the Australian Open tennis tournament came under attack for putting players at risk.

"Heat wave hell" and "Melbourne melts" were among newspaper headlines.

But get used to it, was the message from weather experts.

Global warming models predict hot dry spells in the region will be increasingly common.

"Things are warming up and changing. We expect records to fall," said Bill Scherek from the Bureau of Meteorology.

And since the hot spell began on Tuesday records have tumbled.

Adelaide residents sweated through temperatures that reached 45.7 degrees Celsius on Wednesday, their hottest day for 70 years.

Adelaide's minimum of 33.9 degrees on Thursday was the highest-ever night temperature recorded in the city and if forecasts run true, it will experience its longest run of 40-plus daily temperatures since 1908.

Tasmania experienced its hottest recorded temperature, after Flinders Island airport reached 41.5 degrees on Thursday.

Melbourne has also been breaking records.

On Wednesday, Thursday and Friday the temperature was in excess of 43C, an unprecedented stretch of super-hot conditions.

The "relief" - if that is what it is - won't come until next week, when the top temperature will fall to a forecast 29C in Melbourne.

For Adelaide, the mercury will get above 38 degrees for at least the next seven days, forecasters predict.

Global warming may conjure up images of melting ice-caps, but as the temperature climbs, it also puts stress on vital infrastructure like the electricity grid, transport services and hospitals.

This week's heat has shown essential services are more fragile than many thought.

On both Wednesday and Thursday more than 100,000 houses and businesses experienced power failures in Melbourne.

A national electricity grid supposed to smooth out summer drains on power failed briefly, when the main electrical connection between Victoria and Tasmania went down.

"This week is unusual but it (the heat) will become much more like the normal experience, in the range of normal heatwaves, in 10-20 years," explained Professor David Karoly from the University of Melbourne.

Within 30 years, the number of daily temperatures above 35 degrees is expected to double in Melbourne.

Prof Karoly is an expert in meteorology, chairs the Victorian government's climate change reference group, and in 2007 shared the Nobel Peace Prize.

"It is clear that the current (Victorian) public transport system is not able to cope and it is also clear that the water supply system is stretched," he told AAP.

"The health services and the road system are also obviously stretched to their limits.

"The system can't cope now, and it is just going to get much worse," he said, stressing that he was speaking as an academic, not a government spokesman.

Meantime, the heatwave was also creating problems for Victoria's Transport Minister Lynne Kosky, who has been fighting for her political skin as she deals with criticisms from commuters sick of cancelled or late services.

On Thursday, 474 trains were cancelled, about 24 per cent of that day's total services because of heat issues.

In Adelaide, buses replaced trams for some periods, as the transport system in that city also struggled.

While authorities feel the heat, so, too, did players at the Australian Open tennis tournament.

Late January is Melbourne's hottest period, and for some players, it proved too much.

Defending men's champion Novak Djokovic pulled out when the temperature reached 35C on Tuesday.

Fans on his official website took aim at event organisers, but tournament director Craig Tiley was unrepentant.

He told AAP that January was the best time to hold the Australian Open, and players were professional athletes who trained for the conditions.

Mr Tiley said an extreme heat policy was in place, so players got longer breaks and ice-packs when it got hot.

If the weather got too warm the roof of centre court could be closed.

"We are an outdoor tournament," Mr Tiley said.

Meanwhile, in a 14-hour period in Melbourne on Wednesday, ambulance staff treated 30 people for heat exposure and another 56 for collapse.

Over the border, ambulance officers in South Australia experienced a 12 per cent jump in the total number of patients they treated.

Firefighters were also forced into action, as heat dried out forests, making the southeast region tinder-dry.

Hundreds fought small and large blazes, and on Friday firefighters were still battling to save dozens of houses in Victoria's Latrobe Valley.

For those who have had enough of the heat, the long-term weather forecasts may provide some relief.

>From February to April temperatures are likely to be about average, but some parts of South Australia have been tipped to get cooler than normal days.