Fewer Deaths from Heat Events, But Reasons Obscured

MORE people died in Australia from extreme heat events in 1896 than in any other year, with 450 dead nationally. The second worst year was 2009 with 432 dead, followed by 1939 with 420. Considering these numbers in terms of total population, then we have a decline from about 13 dead per 100,000 in 1896, to 6 per 100,000 in 1939, to just 2 per 100,000 in 2009.

That’s according to a new paper by Lucinda Coates and colleagues from Risk Frontiers, Macquarie University and the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre, Melbourne. The paper is entitled, ‘Exploring 167 years of vulnerability: An examination of extreme heat events in Australia 1844-2010’, and published by Environmental Science and Policy (volume 42, pages 33-44).

Coates and colleagues indicate that since 1844 extreme heat events in Australia have killed at least 5,332 people. Most deaths have occurred in January, and within January, most deaths occur on 27th January, which is the day after our national Australian Day holidays.

There are spikes in the total number dead, and also death rate in 1896, 1908 and 1939, Figure 1.


Fig1. Solid continuous line represents heat-related death rate per 100,000.  Other line represents total deaths per year.

Fig1. Solid continuous line represents heat-related death rate per 100,000. Other line represents total deaths per year.


High death rates in 1912, 1914, 1927 and many years in between, suggest higher mortality due to extreme heat events during the early 20th Century. This is consistent with early publications on temperature trends in Australia. For example, a 1953 paper by E.L. Deacon (Australian Journal of Physics, volume 6, pages 209-218) shows the ten-year running average of mean summer maximum temperatures for several locations in central and eastern Australia peaked in the late 1800s, Figure 2.


Fig 2.  Ten-year running averages of mean summer maximum temperature.

Fig 2. Ten-year running averages of mean summer maximum temperature.


This is generally consistent with the unhomogenized temperature record for eastern Australia (see for example Jennifer Marohasy et al. The Sydney Papers Online, Issue 26).

Apparently ignorant of this early publication by Deacon, and the unhomogenized temperature record for Australia, Coates et al. do not make the link between the higher death rate in the early 20th Century and the higher temperatures.

Rather, relying on recent reports from the CSIRO and Bureau of Meteorology, they simply state that since 1950 each decade has been warmer than the previous. While technically correct, such a statement ignores the very hot decades of the late 1800s and early 20th century and as such is misleading.

Coates goes on to state that, “Without adaptive measures, the conjunction of expectations for extreme heat events to be of greater frequency, duration and intensity and an ageing and increasing population suggests an increase in future heat-related fatalities.”

They attribute the fall in the decadal death rate from 1.69 deaths per 100,000 population in the 1910s to 0.26 in the 2000s to a “variety of factors, but mainly to reduced numbers of people working outside, a better informed public, greater freedom of dress and improvement in utilities and services, such as home cooling, access and breadth of health services including aged care services, warning systems and rescue services.”

9 Responses to Fewer Deaths from Heat Events, But Reasons Obscured

  1. Pathway July 25, 2014 at 9:54 am #

    You don’t think that modern air conditioning would have anything to do with the reduced mortality rate, would you?

  2. Geoff Brown July 25, 2014 at 10:20 am #

    “Our” ABC reported in January that, in 2009, in Victoria alone there were 370, which according to the report, means that there were 32 over the rest of Australia.

    http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-01-23/heatwave-death-toll-expected-to-top-almost-400/5214496

  3. Robert July 25, 2014 at 10:32 am #

    Modern air conditioning would indeed reduce mortality rate. What would vastly increase the rate would be a much thinner population and less reportage. 1896 was likely our worst year for heat death, but 1792 might have been with more population and 2009 with less air con.

    Pathway, the main falsehood to attack is modern climate exceptionalism. It is a huge lie, pushed in countless ways by countless stunts and dodges to deflect our attention from stuff that actually happened.

  4. cohenite July 25, 2014 at 1:46 pm #

    Generally cold causes more deaths than heat; Goklany’s work shows this:

    http://joannenova.com.au/2011/11/7000-excess-winter-deaths-in-australia-and-1500-in-new-zealand-each-year/

    And see Table 4 here:

    http://www.jpands.org/vol14no4/goklany.pdf

    This has been mirrored in other studies:

    Lee, H.F. and Zhang, D.D. 2010. Changes in climate and secular population cycles in China, 1000 CE to 1911. Climate Research 42: 235-246.

    Zhang, Z., Tian, H., Cazelles, B., Kausrud, K.L., Brauning, A. Guo, F. and Stenseth, N.C. 2010. Periodic climate cooling enhanced natural disasters and wars in China during AD 10-1900. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 277: 10.1098/rspb.2010.0890.

    Zhang, D.D., Lee, H.F., Wang, C., Li, B., Pei, Q., Zhang, J. and An, Y. 2011a. The causality analysis of climate change and large-scale human crisis. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA: 10.1073/pnas.1104268108.

    Christidis, N., Donaldson, G.C. and Stott, P.A. 2010. Causes for the recent changes in cold- and heat-related mortality in England and Wales. Climatic Change 102: 539-553.

  5. spangled drongo July 25, 2014 at 1:50 pm #

    Pathway, aircon doesn’t fix this:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Forgotten_baby_syndrome#Forgotten_baby_syndrome

  6. Ken Stewart July 25, 2014 at 1:54 pm #

    Death rates are much higher in winter and lower in summer, and these proportions reversed at the beginning of the 20th century. See this 2002 paper by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare:

    http://www.aihw.gov.au/WorkArea/DownloadAsset.aspx?id=6442453159

    Interestingly, the authors do NOT attribute continuing decline in winter death rates (to 1999) world wide, to warming (specifically, improved central heating in Europe), but to improved socio-economic conditions.

    I have not been able to locate any study comparable to the Coates paper of death rates attributable to extreme cold.

  7. Ken Stewart July 25, 2014 at 1:55 pm #

    Thanks, Cohenite!

  8. Larry Fields July 25, 2014 at 4:24 pm #

    Hot topic, we’ve got here!

    Puns aside, I’ve come close to getting heat stroke a few times on hot strenuous mountain hikes. And I’ve learned a few things from my experiences, which I’d like to share. Hopefully nobody will object if I leave out the usual platitudes.

    First, do not eat any bacon or pork sausage at breakfast before a strenuous hot-weather hike. On the other hand, turkey sausage is not a problem. Why? Dunno.

    Second, hike with a dog — even if you have to borrow one from your neighbor, as I did. Experience has shown that with the dog on leash, I can go faster uphill, without putting myself at risk for heatstroke. The dog in question was a super-smart Border Collie mix. There’s even a guest post about him on this blog from several years ago.
    http://jennifermarohasy.com/2009/07/gurr-the-toy-maker-a-note-from-larry/

    Side note. A hiking acquaintance with asthma was able to walk uphill much faster than usual when he had Gurr on leash. And no, Gurr was not pulling. Can a properly-selected canine companion decrease the need for asthma meds?

    I’m guessing that a Cattledog, or any medium-to-large herding dog would also be helpful in this respect. Ditto for a a Weimaraner or Vizsla (short-haired hunting dogs).

    There is anecdotal material about a Mexican Hairless dog, the Choloitzcuintli (spelling?). Supposedly, keeping a Cholo as a pet can decrease arthritic pain. Assuming that this is accurate, some other dog breeds may also be helpful.

    Third, do not wear amber-tinted sunglasses when hiking up a steep hill.

    Fourth, carry some powdered instant tea, to mix with water from your canteen, in a separate drinking cup. Drink some tea as soon as the first symptoms of overheating appear.

    Caveats: I do not handle hot weather as well as most other hikers. These items, plus the usuall precautions, probably make a bigger difference for me than for most other people.

    More to the point: What works for me, may or may not work for you. The above is strictly empirical, sample-size-of-one stuff. Your mileage may vary.

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    […] Marohasy, whom I mentioned in my last post, has a most interesting essay on her website on historical accounts of extreme heat in Australia. Surprise, surprise — the […]

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