Media release

New warning system for nature’s biggest killer: Heatwaves

Updating warning systems for heatwaves could save hundreds of lives in Australia and help emergency services better prepare for what are Australia’s deadliest extreme weather events.


Lead Scientist at research company Risk Frontiers, Dr Thomas Loridan says the public underestimates the dangers associated with extreme temperatures despite more than a century of data showing how deadly they are.


“The 2009 heatwave that hit Victoria and South Australia killed 432 people, or two and a half times the number of people killed in the Black Saturday bushfires that followed,” Dr Loridan said.

“With the exception of pandemics, heatwaves have been responsible for more deaths than all other natural disasters put together.”


Building on the work by the Bureau of Meteorology, Risk Frontiers has created five heat severity categories that account for both high temperature spikes and prolonged duration of extreme heat conditions, and then modelled the expected number of deaths.


“For example, the death toll from a category five heatwave is expected to be at least three deaths for every 100,000 people exposed, Dr Loridan said.”


In Melbourne this equates to at least 120 heat related deaths.


Dr Liz Hanna of the Climate and Health Alliance says adopting such a warning system could save many lives as heatwaves become hotter, last longer and occur more often under climate change.

Dr Hanna says it’s a common misconception that only the elderly is at risk of heat illnesses.

“There’s an upper limit to what temperatures humans can tolerate and as heat rises, illness increases and productivity drops away,” Dr Hanna said.

Heatwaves are also something our emergency services need to be increasingly prepared for. The CSIRO and BoM State of the Climate 2016 report found, “the duration, frequency and intensity of extreme heat events have increased across large parts of Australia.”


Victorian paramedic Ward Young sees the immediate effect of heat stress.


“People with chronic medical conditions become critically ill as heat pushes people beyond their capacity to cope,” Mr Young said.


“People need to know how to prepare and how to deal with the extended and more severe heat waves we are experiencing.”