Naming deadly heatwaves

Climate Council Research Director Dr Simon Bradshaw.

With parts of Australia reeling from record-breaking heat, the Climate Council is calling for heatwaves to be named, similar to how we name tropical cyclones, as a way of helping avoid more deaths.

This move, already trialled in Europe, could increase awareness of the serious health and safety risks posed by heatwaves.

Climate Councillor and public health physician Dr Kate Charlesworth said Seville in Spain was the first city in the world to start naming heatwaves.

In 2023 a heatwave in southern Europe was unofficially named ‘Cerberus’, after the ferocious three-headed dog from Greek mythology, vividly symbolising its severity. This occurred after a 2022 heatwave in Europe killed more than 61,000 people.

“Aussies think that because we live in a hotter country that we are somehow immune to heat,” she said.

“But heatwaves, like those underway in Western Australia, are lethal – having claimed more Australian lives since 1890 than bushfires, cyclones, earthquakes, floods and severe storms combined.

“That’s often because people underestimate how deadly they can be, or overestimate their own ability to cope in extreme heat.

“Heatwaves are becoming hotter, longer and more frequent due to climate change. Naming heatwaves can raise more public awareness about the dangers, and drive home the urgency of our situation.

“If it has a name, a hashtag and media coverage, then people pay closer attention to the danger and how they can protect themselves. Any step that helps protect our communities, our health, and our planet is a step in the right direction.”

Western Australia experienced an exceptionally sweltering February, continuing a streak of relentless heat. Since September 2023 shattered monthly temperature records, each subsequent month has consistently registered temperatures well above average.

Climate Council Research Director Dr Simon Bradshaw said pollution from burning coal, oil and gas is overheating our planet and worsening extreme weather events like heatwaves, intense downpours and droughts.

“If we continue to recklessly burn more coal, oil, and gas, then heatwaves will become so extreme that some parts of the country will become effectively uninhabitable. We can’t keep stoking the fire if we want the room to cool down,” he said.

Dr Bradshaw said a ranking and naming system for heatwaves could be modelled off the Bureau of Meteorology’s heatwave definitions, and that there is already a longstanding practice of naming tropical cyclones.

“More pollution puts all of us at greater risk,” Dr Charlesworth said.

“When it comes to heatwaves everyone should be looking after themselves and others – particularly the elderly, children, and those with pre-existing illnesses. Stay indoors, stay hydrated, stay cool. Australians should always heed the advice of their local health authorities, and look after each other.”

The Climate Council is Australia’s leading community-funded climate change communications organisation providing authoritative, expert and evidence-based advice on climate change to journalists, policymakers, and the wider Australian community.

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