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Trees re-leaf me .. no canopy means hotter suburbs

Studies have shown that the suburb of Macgregor was up to 7 degrees hotter than certain southside suburbs. L-R Aideen Fitzgerlad,9,  cools off with Nate Fitzgerald,2,  and Seth Fitzgerald,5  in their backyard in Macgregor.

Studies have shown that the suburb of Macgregor was up to 7 degrees hotter than certain southside suburbs. L-R Aideen Fitzgerlad,9, cools off with Nate Fitzgerald,2, and Seth Fitzgerald,5 in their backyard in Macgregor. Photo: Melissa Adams

As Canberra sweltered through its hottest day in 12 months, Australian National University data suggested trees could be the key to lowering summer temperatures by up to seven degrees in the capital's suburbs - and saving lives.

The study of temperatures and humidity found the outer suburb of Macgregor hit a maximum of 42.5 degrees on summer's hottest day four years ago, 7.5 degrees warmer than in the leafy inner south at Deakin.

On Wednesday the thermometer hit 40.2 degrees at 3.25pm, heat not seen since January 18 last year.

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ANU academic Liz Hanna said the 22-day study of 21 suburbs - which found consistent higher temperatures in outer areas compared to inner suburbs on either side of Lake Burley Griffin - confirmed international studies which linked temperature variation to urban design and foliage.

''Green spaces and foliage cool the environment and lessen the health risk, especially on these very hot days,'' Dr Hanna said.

''The striking difference in Canberra is likely to be based on the thick canopy of mature, shady, deciduous street trees.''

The unpublished data was part of background research done for an upcoming study on working in the heat in Australia to be completed by ANU's National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health.

Dr Hanna, the director of the Working in the Heat project, said the temperature findings highlighted the need for larger front and backyards.

''If we have planning designs and housing designs where there's insufficient front and backyard to plant a tree, and if street trees are not shade trees, we think that's foolish,'' she said.

''It actually makes a difference because when it gets to certain temperatures, people start flocking to hospitals and morgues, and it's a relatively easy step we can do to ensure there are good shade trees planted, and that they're looked after in the heat as well.''

Each year, a number of Canberrans are affected by hot temperatures leading to hospitalisation, and in some cases death.

Click or touch on the icons above to see the temperature at 3pm on January 12, 2010.

In Macgregor, the Fitzgerald family know all about the heat left by a lack of trees both on and surrounding a block.

While the three kids were happy to have a quick water fight in the small backyard at 6.30pm on Wednesday, Paul Fitzgerald said the lack of trees and a residential construction site across the road created a baking dustbowl on hot days. ''Out here they just fry,'' Mr Fitzgerald said.

''We'll be off to the pool tomorrow. We get some massive winds, and we go to the mall, because it just gets so stuffy [inside].''

He and his wife Zarina blame the planning and development of small blocks, with their recently built rental home covering between 350 and 400 square metres.

''We're hemmed in like sardines here just so people can make more money,'' Mr Fitzgerald said.

In ''old'' Macgregor, just a short drive to the east, the Esterhuizen family have established trees just outside the front yard, with an extensive covered patio providing wider relief from the sun. ''There was nothing in [our previous home in] Franklin, but here there's some shade from trees and we have the deck,'' Johan Esterhuizen said.

Mr Esterhuizen said the family migrated from South Africa in 2009, with the airconditioner used more frequently in summer at both their Canberra dwellings.

''In South Africa we had airconditioning in our house, but we never used it as much as here,'' he said.

Environment and Sustainable Development Directorate director-general, Dorte Ekelund, said planning controls for development on suburban blocks did not limit or prevent factoring in trees. ''The ACT is committed to protecting hills, ridges and watercourses, providing urban parks and ensuring street verges are treed which all contribute to the 'bush capital','' Ms Ekelund said.

''Often new suburbs are more exposed to wind, dust and hotter temperatures while the vegetation establishes.''

While Dr Hanna encouraged residents to water their nearby trees, Canberrans were already making major use of the liquid resource, with ACTEW Water reporting the city's 250 megalitres used on Wednesday as the largest consumption since Spring 2006.

There's no temperature relief for Canberrans in any suburb tomorrow, with another 40 degree maximum tipped, followed by top temperatures of 39 on Friday and Saturday.

Thursday is a day of total fire ban in the ACT and the Southern Ranges, Central Ranges and Southern Slopes regions of NSW. Isolated showers are expected from Saturday afternoon, with a milder 30 degrees the peak on Sunday.

Dr Hanna is calling for people who work in extreme heat conditions to take part in this year's study, and would like to hear from individuals and employers.

Those interested in taking part can email summerheat@anu.edu.au. For more information visit nceph.anu.edu.au/research/projects/working-heat-study

39 comments

  • Wow it took someone with a university degree to work that out, common sense suggests shade and trees reduces the temperature.

    Commenter
    Lainey
    Date and time
    January 16, 2014, 1:32AM
    • +1 on @ Lainey's comments, seriously, farmers across the planet have known this for thousands of years.
      I just hope these supposed intelligent people at the ANU are not actually being paid, because if they are they are taking money under false pretenses.

      Commenter
      Bob
      Location
      Canberra
      Date and time
      January 16, 2014, 7:46AM
    • No, it took someone from the ANU to prove it. Common sense isn't worth a cent when you're trying to influence policy; peer reviewed research on the other hand is very valuable.

      Commenter
      Stir the pot
      Date and time
      January 16, 2014, 8:15AM
    • The connection may seem obvious to many, but apparently not to enough of the people in charge. I hope that something in print from ANU researchers will be taken a bit more seriously and help to end the tree paranoia that followed the bushfires. It would be nice if it could moderate the nonsense that's arising from the notion of 'solar access', too. Well done, I say, for bothering to do the work.

      Commenter
      Correa
      Date and time
      January 16, 2014, 8:19AM
    • Typical anti-academic tosh. The important thing is whether governments and planners listen to them. Like with many environmental challenges facing the world academics (which in this case really means scientists who also do some teaching) have the solutions. It is political will and public apathy/ignorance that are the hurdles.

      Commenter
      RGY
      Date and time
      January 16, 2014, 8:29AM
    • A few years ago I was listening to a scientist in Melbourne talking about the incredibly strict water restrictions in place in Melbourne that made it very difficult to maintain gardens. He said that to get the same amount of cooling effect with trees versus air-conditioning, keeping the city well watered (gardens instead of hard landscaping, growing shade trees etc) used less water than the amount used in the power plants that generated electricity to power air conditioners.

      Commenter
      RGY
      Date and time
      January 16, 2014, 8:34AM
  • Sadly greedy wins out. From government, to developers, real estates, banks the list is long. Cram people into as small as space as possible and to hell with the social or any other issues. Look at ugly new suburbs like throughout Gungahlin, slums of the future. Rows and rows of eyesore units, backyard less anti child houses with roofs almost touching. Where would you fit a tree amongst this ugly mess.

    Commenter
    Peter
    Date and time
    January 16, 2014, 2:11AM
    • i can't agree more, the current sardine can building trends in the ACT have no respect for open space. In the middle of summer, a tradional QLD'er house without air con stays much cooler than a house in this town. SImple design changes make a huge imporvement, unfortunately the money hungry govt and developers don't give a rats

      Commenter
      clonesville hater
      Date and time
      January 16, 2014, 8:42AM
    • You have identified the main culprit - greed.
      If there is MONEY to be made, then everything else takes a back seat. Welcome to Corporate Government by stealth. We elect people to represent our interests, and those who can afford to pay lobbyists (and bribes) then usurp the process and corrupt the outcomes. What is good for the citizenry and the environment is in a very poor last place, behind obscene profiteering, prestige seeking, accumulation of stupid amounts of wealth, and the transfer of public monies into private hands.
      This is not the future, it is the now. Trees and shade? Bah, there's no money in it. A liveable environment? Bugger that, the rich just slip away to the coastal retreat, or the air conditioned mansion, while the rest of us slowly fry. And the general public just shrugs and accepts it, as greed, pathological lying and criminal conduct have become normalised. I feel sick.

      Commenter
      truthy
      Date and time
      January 16, 2014, 1:37PM
  • How depressing.

    Commenter
    Stir the pot
    Date and time
    January 16, 2014, 6:27AM

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