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435 people died in an 1896 heatwave — but scientists say the extreme heat events of today are still hotter

By Sophie Meixner and Daniel Nancarrow, Saturday December 21, 2019 - 06:06 EDT
ABC licensed image
The Federation Drought was the worst since European settlement, as depicted in JA Commins' 1897 painting In Drought Time. - ABC licensed

In the late 19th century, Australia was struck by a heatwave so intense that 435 people were killed and hundreds more were sent fleeing for their lives.

The 1895-1896 heatwave during the Federation Drought holds the record as Australia's deadliest heatwave, closely followed by 2009, which recorded at least

The town of Bourke lost at least 40 people — 1.6 per cent of its population — during the 1896 event, while Sydney authorities reported hospitals at breaking point and pedestrians collapsing in the streets.

Newspaper reports describe temperatures in Bourke reaching 48.9 degrees Celsius on three occasions, and the maximum temperature remaining above 38C for 24 consecutive days.

As Australia endures a series of this summer, the 1896 event is sometimes viewed as evidence that Australia has always experienced extraordinary heat, and that the effects of climate change are overblown.

But climate scientists say that is an oversimplification, and the heatwaves we experience today are significantly hotter than those in the past.

'The town is panic-stricken'

In January 1896, the Bourke Western Herald chronicled the rapid deaths of dozens of residents from heat-related conditions, warning that "living in Bourke under present conditions is … suicide".

"Since last Friday no less than 14 additional deaths have taken place in and around Bourke, all of which were at least accelerated by the continuous excessive heat," the newspaper noted.

"In view of the rapidly increasing rate of mortality it can scarcely be a matter of surprise that the town is panic-stricken.

"Every morning a large number of our townspeople, especially women and children, are actually fleeing for their lives from Bourke to some cool retreat."

Horse-drawn carriages laden with ice patrolled the streets, picking up victims of heatstroke and rushing them to hospital, while free or discounted railway passes were issued to allow residents to escape to the cooler mountains.

Funeral trains were crowded to capacity with both bodies and mourners, with 70 burials occurring in one day at Sydney's Rookwood Cemetery on January 15, 1896.

Australia's three hottest years all happened since 2005

The Bureau of Meteorology has listed followed by 2005 and 2018.

But 1896's sweltering temperatures remain a common event often pointed to by climate sceptics.

In a statement to Parliament in 2014, Nationals MP George Christensen criticised the Bureau of Meteorology for not considering 1896's temperatures when calculating Australia's hottest year.

"It has never been as hot since [1896]," he said.

"Yet the Bureau of Meteorology claims it is getting hotter and hotter.

"How could it be getting hotter and how could last year, 2013, be the hottest year on record, if it was hotter back in 1896 … 118 years ago?"

The temperature recording methods used in 1896 were flawed

Methods of recording temperature were not standardised until the early 1900s, leading to inflated temperature readings before then.

The global standard for temperature measurement includes the use of a Stevenson screen, which is a white louvred box allowing ventilation and ensuring thermometers inside are never exposed to the sun.

A Stevenson screen was not installed in Bourke until August 1908, meaning temperature readings from before that could be inflated by as much as 2C.

University of Melbourne climate researcher Linden Ashcroft said thermometers in Bourke were likely placed in sub-standard conditions in 1896.

"Some thermometers were under verandahs, or they were against stone buildings," she said.

"I've heard of thermometers being kept in beer crates.

"So sometimes the thermometer would get exposure to the sun, and that doesn't mean that you're capturing the temperature of the ambient air, you're capturing the temperature of what it would feel like standing in the sun.

"Before about 1910 for the country, temperature observations are a little bit higher — they are unnaturally higher than we would expect."

The Bureau of Meteorology noted in a 2017 report the 1896 data "cannot be easily compared with modern recordings".

"Detailed study has shown that extreme temperatures recorded at Bourke during the 1896 heatwave were likely suspect due to non-standard exposure, and likely around two degrees warmer than temperatures recorded with standard instrumentation."

People weren't prepared for heatwaves in 1896

University of New South Wales climate researcher Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick said people in 1896 were largely unprepared for extreme heat, meaning they were more vulnerable to its effects.

"Back then everyone wore a lot more clothing than what they do now, there was no air conditioning, people worked outside, they moved outside a lot," she said.

"It's like comparing apples and oranges."

Temperatures today are still hotter overall

Dr Perkins-Kirkpatrick said even taking into account flawed thermometer conditions, average temperatures in 1896 were still lower than last year's average.

"Around [1896], temperatures on average over Australia for that season were about one degree hotter than the overall climate mean," she said.

"But then in 2013, that summer was 1.5 degrees hotter than average.

"And last summer was over two degrees hotter than average.

"So although [1896] was a hot season, it wasn't nearly as hot as some of the seasons we've seen since then."


© ABC 2019

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