Phil Mercer | The National
The savage effects of climate change on health are to be investigated by a new multimillion-dollar study funded by the Australian government as researchers investigate the threats posed by more frequent heat waves, cyclones, fires and droughts.
Scientists are warning that climatic shifts are likely to increase the incidence of infectious diseases, post-traumatic stress and heart ailments.
They also predict that climate change could have a near-apocalyptic effect on parts of Australia, which are expected to suffer more devastating bushfires, flooding and tropical storms.
“They injure, they maim and they kill people, but they also cause a lot of environmental and social disruption,” said Tony McMichael, a professor at the Australian National University in Canberra, which is involved in the study, for which the government paid AU$10 million (Dh24.8m).
“Post-traumatic stress disorders invariably follow and survivor guilt, those that say ‘well, I was the lucky one, but I was not seriously injured or killed’. There’s quite a widespread spectrum of consequences of these extreme weather events.”
Fires in the state of Victoria over the weekend have killed at least 96 people in the worst wildfire disasters in Australian history.
At the end of last month, Melbourne, Australia’s second largest city and capital of Victoria, roasted in its hottest period in more than a century as the southern metropolis endured several consecutive days of temperatures of more than 40°C, which gave residents a frightening insight into how the future could feel as the Earth warms.
In the tiny settlement of Kyancutta in South Australia the mercury peaked at 48.2°C.
Across the south-east of the continent the scorching conditions resulted in dozens of sudden deaths, mainly of older residents, who had heart attacks and strokes that have been blamed on the unbearable heat.
“It was a killer situation,” said Neville Nicholls, a climate scientist at Melbourne’s Monash University. “The heatwave has to have been catastrophic for the elderly in Melbourne.
“We know there are two vulnerable groups with heat waves; one is the very young, and people over about 65 years of age. If the average daily temperature is 30 degrees or above in Melbourne then we get a jump of about 20 per cent in deaths in the over-65 age group. It just gets worse and worse as the temperatures get higher. Around the world these hot extremes are getting hotter and more frequent and we can attribute this pretty easily to the enhanced greenhouse effect. It has a really simple effect – more heat waves mean more deaths.”
Melbourne’s red-hot spell caused chaos as railway lines buckled in the intense heat and the power network crumpled under unprecedented demand that left 500,000 homes and businesses without electricity.