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Heatwave 'one of the most significant' on record, says Bureau of Meteorology

Heat takes its toll on a ballboy at the Australian Open: officials invoked the tennis tournament’s “extreme heat policy”.

Heat takes its toll on a ballboy at the Australian Open: officials invoked the tennis tournament’s “extreme heat policy”.

Last week's heatwave that baked most of south-eastern Australia rivalled the intensity of the searing temperatures that preceded the Black Saturday bushfires almost five years ago, according to analysis by the Bureau of Meteorology.

A “dome of very hot air” formed over WA in the second week of January, breaking records in that state before heading eastward, the bureau said in a special climate statement. The warmth has since shifted north to Queensland, forming heatwave conditions over most of that state.

While the heatwave broke few records for daily maximums – SA’s Mt Gambier being one exception – many sites set records for prolonged heat.

South-eastern Australia saw temperatures as high as 12 degrees above average during the heatwave.

South-eastern Australia saw temperatures as high as 12 degrees above average during the heatwave.

For Victoria, Tasmania, southern NSW and the southern half of SA, the heatwave ranked alongside those of January-February 2009, January 1939 and January 1908 as “one of the most significant” on record, the report said.

“Extreme heat persisted for a longer period (last week) than it did in those heatwaves over some areas”, the report said. These areas included Melbourne and Adelaide, and other coastal regions of Victoria and SA.

Victoria, for instance, had its hottest four-day period on record for both maximum and average heat. Melbourne’s average temperature on Thursday was 35.45 degrees, narrowly eclipsing the previous high of 35.4 set on January 30, 2009.

The heat took its toll on public health, with Victoria’s ambulance services handling 77 calls on Friday for cardiac arrests, almost six times the number for a typical summer’s day. Play was also disrupted in the Australia Open on Thursday, with officials invoking the tennis tournament’s “extreme heat policy”.

Lighter winds associated with the cool change have helped fire fighters battle dozens of fires across NSW, SA and Victoria in the wake of the heatwave, preventing a repeat of the February 2009 blazes that killed 173 people and destroyed thousands of homes in Victoria. 

Some fires, though, could continue to burn for weeks - such as those in remote areas of Victoria’s Gippsland – unless dousing rain arrives.

Places setting records for prolonged heat include Benalla in north-east Victoria, where its seven days of 38 degrees or warmer weather beat a previous run of five such days.

Tumbarumba, in southern NSW, had five days above 38, beating the previous stretch of four such days. The town also broke its record maximum daily temperature by half a degree last Thursday, reaching 40.5 degrees.

Other sites breaking individual daily maximums included Mt Gambier, with 44.1 degrees on Thursday, also 0.5 degrees warmer than the previous high.

Lake St Clair, at the southern end of the Cradle Mountain walk in Tasmania, beat its previous record by 0.9 degrees, with 33.9 degrees also on last Thursday.

The heatwave followed another significant event that formed about 10 days earlier, and scorched its way across northern NSW and Queensland. The twin bursts of heat also followed a year in which record temperatures tumbled, making 2013 the hottest in more than 100 years of standards records.

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