Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Heatwave Hell in Melbourne - And Afterwards

Pic: Koshy Koshy
Last week, Melbourne endured four days of temperatures over 40 degrees Celsius, including three days over 42, and two days at virtually 44 degrees.

Adelaide fared even worse: 42.1 on Monday, 45.1 on Tuesday, 43.7 on Wednesday and 44.2 on the Thursday. On that day Roseworthy, north of Adelaide, was the hottest place in South Australia, with the maximum temperature reaching 46.4.

I wasn’t expecting to write a blog entry primly entitled ‘How I felt after the heat wave’, especially as I’ve just had a whinge about the difficulties of being green and anxious. But then a couple of friends talked about being depressed and tired once the weather had changed so I decided to make a few speculations about it.

It was a week when things got a bit too sci-fi for my liking. The level of heat was something I felt I hadn’t experienced before, but apparently things got this bad back in February 2009, culminating in Black Saturday, when the temperature reached 46.4 in Melbourne. (As you can see these extremes are turning me into a climate nerd!)

It seems there is something we lack when we think and talk about temperature. We don’t have the words to describe the spiritual and emotional effects of extended heat. We know that the very young and the elderly die in heatwaves, as do numerous small animals – bats, possums, birds – and in the worst hours we fancy we experience something of what they must have gone through, but we can’t possibly.

Nor are we able, as a society, to communally memorialise the heat. We commemorate the bushfires of course, and the terrible loss of life and home, as we should. But somehow the communal bruising of extended extreme weather doesn’t get memorialised.

Perhaps we should have some kind of public art work that can be added to over the years, recording the highest temperatures for each summer with accompanying statistics and stories. Some of those stories would be funny but some of them would be tragic – losing grandparents and young babies to heat stroke for example. More than double the number of people died of the heat in the week before Black Saturday (374) than died in the fires (173).

Maybe the lack of a vocabulary for this type of stress is why some people try to go on as if nothing has changed – there were still joggers on my street early in the the mornings of the hottest days. Routines are comforting touchstones in uncertain times, but it's important to adapt and bend. A friend of mine rode his bike to the local shopping centre for breakfast, but he rode slowly, and found it less tiring than walking would have been.  

Suffering the heat

With extreme heat and cold, it’s not, in a first world country, just about the temperature. It’s what battling the temperature, and the practical effects of the extreme weather, takes out of you physically and emotionally.

If your body is overheated for a long period of time, it’s a low-key, extended suffering. It’s exhausting in a way that is difficult to describe. I imagine that battling with extreme cold has similarly debilitating effects.

But why the mental effects, the lingering ennui and depression? Although there is a robust public discussion about the heat, with plenty of warnings and advice about how to cope with it, there is no advice on how to cope with the fears it engenders. Perhaps being very hot for a long period provokes ancient, preverbal terrors. There’s also the strange sense of anticlimax that we experience when the temperature drops suddenly, and we are expected to go back to normal straight away.

Yet it’s fundamentally wrong for the body to be this overheated and it feels that way. It took me three days to get over the physical effects of the heat. In those days I paced myself well and got everything done that I needed to. And there were small breaks, too, during the ordeal, like the Wednesday morning at quarter to six when I opened the front door and the morning air was cool and welcoming so I walked a couple of blocks and it was the most beautiful reprieve. To feel alive in the world and able to move freely without being overheated.

But by the last day I’d had it. I escaped the house at about 3, drove myself to Camberwell library, picturing the waiting beanbags, which no one usually uses – imagining myself on one of them. And when I got there, sure enough there were a couple of empty beanbags. On one side of me, a young man had fallen asleep. On the other, a young couple sat close and chatting quietly. An almost full bottle of spring water on the ground beside them. Forgot. The. Water. Damn. At Ashburton library two days earlier, the staff had put out a jug of water and plastic cups – a great idea. Camberwell library hadn’t done that so the utter joy of the beanbag was marred a bit by thirst, but it was manageable.

Anyway, the end of the ordeal was in sight, and came earlier than expected. On the way home from the library the temperature started to drop – by about 10 degrees Celsius in an hour. That was enough to provide immediate relief and then the full cooling came a few hours later.

It was a sobering glimpse into a future dominated by catastrophic climate change. When I was growing up, it was a big deal (and kind of exciting) for the temperature to reach 100 degreees Fahrenheit, which is ‘only’ 37.7 degrees Celsius. A few months ago the Bureau of Meteorology made an announcement – that the climate of Australia had changed, and that there was no point in looking at climate records to forecast the future. I try to imagine what would have happened if those four days had stretched to five, or six, or more.

In the future, will there be a number of days every year when certain places will be simply uninhabitable? I imagine there could be evacuations. Or instead will there be public places set aside with airconditioning for people to huddle in?

When it came to bushfires – which usually get worse when the cold change hits because the winds fan the flames – my state got off lightly. There was no repeat of Black Saturday. This was a huge relief, although in Victoria alone, the Grampians blaze burned for 52,000 hectares, one person was killed, about 4000 sheep lost their lives, and 27 houses and about 60 other buildings were lost. Terrible, but it could have been so much worse.

So – a huge impost on the body and spirit that probably translates into a huge dive in productivity across the state. I feel as if I’ve gone through some ritual ordeal. And yet in twenty years' time I won’t be boasting to my great-nieces and nephews about how I lived through the Great Heatwave of 2014 – what they will have to put up with in future heatwaves will make last week look like a pleasant spring interlude!

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