Farmer Wayne Dunford was already feeling worn down. He’d battled through 18 months of some of the worst drought he’d seen in his half a century on the land.
Then the heat struck.
Dunford has been feeding livestock by hand on his New South Wales property for 12 months due to the lack of ground growth and is now worried about whether he’ll be able to plant crops at all after extreme heat and wind completely dried out his fields.
“You turn around and you can’t see across the paddock for the dirt blowing across it, that wears people pretty thin. And then there’s the heat on top of that,” he told CNN.
As the United States suffers from a record freeze, with temperatures plummeting below minus 32 degrees Celsius (minus 27 Fahrenheit), Australia is sweltering through an extreme heatwave.
Week after week, temperatures have continued to rise with all of the country’s eight states and territories affected. Across the country, roads have melted, infrastructure has failed and both animals and fish have died en masse.
The southern city of Adelaide experienced its hottest day on record on January 24, reaching 46.6 C (116 F). On Friday, Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology announced it had been the country’s hottest January on record, describing the weather as “unprecedented.”
In temperatures above 40 C (104 F) the human body begins to experience heat exhaustion. Once the temperature exceeds 41 C (105 F), the body starts to shut down. Health warnings have been issued throughout Australia advising people to stay indoors during the hottest part of the day, minimize physical activity and keep hydrated.
But while the current heat continues to cause problems for ordinary Australians, scientists are warning it could only be the beginning of the country’s problems with extreme weather if no action is taken to prevent climate change.
Michael Grose, senior research scientist from CSIRO’s Climate Science Center, told CNN, in one example, that by 2100 Adelaide could face up to 22 days per year over 40 C (104 F) in a worst-case scenario.
“Even under a very low emission scenario we’re expecting to see an increase in those record hot days,” he said.
The sunburnt country
In a video which went viral across Australia in January, two farmers make an emotional appeal for help standing beside the massive Darling River in New South Wales.
They’re holding two large dead fish, killed when temperatures soared at the beginning of the month – just one of three mass fish kills which have left thousands of them decomposing on the surface of the water.
“This fish is 100 years old, it’s never coming back, this is bloody disgraceful,” local farmer Rob McBride says in the video.
Another local, Graeme McCrabb, described to CNN the “horrific” sight which greeted him when he strolled down to the river one day. “The fish were still dying, lots of small ones bouncing along the surface of the water,” he said.
Authorities blamed the prolonged drought and weather conditions, which caused fish to suffocate for lack of oxygen in the water – although some locals say it’s down to government mismanagement of the river system.
But fish aren’t the only victims of Australia’s extreme weather. In the Northern Territory, the bodies of dozens of wild horses were found strewn along a dried-up water hole. In Victoria, more than 2000 flying foxes died due to heat stress in what local media described as a “nightmare” event. Similar mass flying fox deaths have been recorded in the states of New South Wales and Queensland.
“No animals should suffer like this. We have to stop the devastating impacts of climate change becoming normal,” Greenpeace Australia said in statement Tuesday.
Authorities and infrastructure have been struggling to keep up with the extreme weather’s disastrous side effects. Dozens of bushfires broke out across the southern state of Tasmania, destroying homes and wilderness as hundreds of firefighters sought to get the blazes under control.
Tasmanian Premier Will Hodgman on Wednesday warned conditions would “worsen”.
Facing pressure from Australians desperate to escape the heat, the country’s power grid even began to buckle. Hundreds of thousands of homes were sporadically left without power in Victoria and South Australia amid surging demand as residents turned up air conditioners and fans.
‘Not doing enough’
Amid the heatwave, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) released a scathing review of Australia’s environmental policies.
Calling on the Australian government to better protect the country’s “rich biodiversity” and reduce its unusually high dependence on fossil fuels, the report said Australia was on track to miss the emission targets it agreed to under the Paris Agreement.
“The country will fall short of its 2030 emissions target without a major effort to move to a low-carbon model,” the OECD said.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison defended his government’s climate change policies in January, saying he was committed to addressing climate change globally.
Morrison is famous for bringing a lump of coal into Parliament when he was the Treasurer in February 2017, waving it at the opposition and saying “Don’t be afraid.”
There have been regular complaints from climate change experts and activists, as well as the Opposition Labor Party, that Australia is not doing its part globally.
An Essential Vision poll in December 2018 showed more than half of Australians agree, with 53% saying Australia was “not doing enough” to combat global climate change.
CSIRO scientist Grose told CNN that analysis of previous Australian heatwaves had found a “very clear” relation to human-caused climate change.
“We’re expecting more heat extremes and more records to be broken in the future, as well as a greater incident of heatwaves,” he said.
Australian Minister for the Environment Melissa Price did not respond to CNN requests for comment.
‘A dry nation’
“How hot does it have to get before the current government does something on climate change,” Australian Labor Party leader Bill Shorten said on his official Twitter account on January 24.
Shorten is likely to become Australia’s next prime minister within months, with an election due before May and the Morrison government perpetually unpopular. Labor has pledged to take greater action on climate change.
Grose said if more action wasn’t taken soon, the heatwaves would likely come more frequently – and the impact on Australia’s people, economy and biodiversity could be severe.
“I think (climate change) needs to be taken extremely seriously and in some senses the world is starting to take it very seriously,” he said.
But NSW farmer Dunford remains confident their luck will turn around eventually and the drought will break, saying there has been extreme weather all through Australia’s history.
“It could all turn around in three weeks time, it could be quite wet and away we go,” he told CNN.
“We’ve always been a dry nation … when you come up here if it rains, it’s a bonus.”
CORRECTION: This story has been revised to better reflect future temperature projections made by CSIRO scientist Michael Grose.