Lonely, unfit and hooked on air-conditioning - is this the summer of the future?
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Lonely, unfit and hooked on air-conditioning - is this the summer of the future?

Bela Stantic did not stop to take in the vistas of Walgett on his great Aussie road trip this summer. The vineyards of Griffith passed in a blur. He stopped at Victoria’s Twelve Apostles, but took a few photos and then left.

It was not what the Griffith University professor had planned. But as a monster heatwave baked a crust onto southern Australia, “it was not possible to be outside at all”, he says.

Illustration by Richard Giliberto

Illustration by Richard GilibertoCredit:

“I couldn’t do anything, I was basically just in the car all the time. Even then I got fried because the sunshine was so hot, it went through the glass,” Stantic recalls.

“When I was planning the trip, Uluru was supposed to be 36 degrees. But when I got to Adelaide the weather prediction said it would be 46 degrees there … I like warm weather but I thought ‘this is extreme’.”

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After eight days on the road, Stantic cut his trip short and headed home to the Gold Coast, sadly concluding “there was no reason to keep driving".

Unhappy road trippers were not the only Australians whose plans were disrupted by freakishly hot weather this summer.

In Perth, cricket fans avoided an historic Test fixture amid predictions of 38-degree days. Sun melted a coastal highway filled with holidaymakers in northern NSW. Victoria’s coal generators shut down. Tasmania burned. And rotting fish corpses lining the Darling River at Menindee forced anglers to seriously rethink their plans.

The record-smashing temperatures of recent weeks have made it very clear: climate change has arrived. Depictions of a world almost too hot for humans are no longer an abstraction. Summer has changed, and so must we.

“Climate change is putting stress on all our communities,” says Sheila Nguyen, executive director of the Sports Environment Alliance, which helps the sporting community manage changes to the natural environment.

Hotter weather due to climate change is predicted to disrupt the way people spend their summers.

Hotter weather due to climate change is predicted to disrupt the way people spend their summers.Credit:AP

“That stress in Australia is of cultural importance and we have a lot to lose. Across the board, impacts are happening. We have to make decisions for the present and … decisions for the future.”

Western Sydney University researchers recently investigated the effect of high temperatures on city-dwellers. Their findings suggest Australian summers are increasingly being lived indoors, in air-conditioned environments – a trend that is making people more isolated and lonely.

“[On hot days] people would, if they had air-conditioning at home, turn that on and stay within the home or get into an air-conditioned car to go to an air-conditioned shopping centre or cinema or other space,” says senior researcher Dr Louise Crabtree.

“If we keep relying on air-conditioned spaces as the focal points of activity on hot days, increasingly we will see people … not going to the local park or engaging in their local neighbourhood.”

Bela Stantic at the Twelve Apostles on Victoria's Great Ocean Road, before the heatwave forced him to cut the trip short.

Bela Stantic at the Twelve Apostles on Victoria's Great Ocean Road, before the heatwave forced him to cut the trip short.

Extreme heat can be crippling for those who can't cool their homes, such as people on low incomes.

“People in social housing can’t put in an air-conditioning unit or install a ceiling fan. They would literally lie on the floor in the coolest part of the house and not move for hours," Crabtree says.

“We heard from people who, on a hot day, can’t get out of the house because they don’t have transport options that are affordable and cool."

Blast-furnace ambient temperatures also turn people off physical exercise.

“If it’s just too hot and a walk to the bus stop is too far and the bus stop has no shade, people will stop walking. It's very much impacting how much people are walking or bicycling," Crabtree says.

Heatwaves can make it difficult for vulnerable people, such as the elderly, to go about their daily activities.

Heatwaves can make it difficult for vulnerable people, such as the elderly, to go about their daily activities.Credit:Michele Mossop

Aside from the obvious health implications of less physical activity, researchers are also concerned about the "mental health effects of feeling trapped in your house and unable to do anything about it".

Among its recommendations, the study suggested finding ways to cool outdoor urban spaces to draw people out of their homes, such as creating community gardens, as well as improving the accessibility of public infrastructure such as libraries, swimming pools and community centres.

A heavy reliance on air-conditioners can also cause problems when the power bill arrives.

When the mercury slid past 46 degrees in Adelaide last month, making it the hottest capital city on record, pensioner Ann Petersen had no choice but to run her air-conditioner day and night.

“It worries me because this is going to cost me a huge bill which I haven’t budgeted for. And I know a lot of other people are going to be in exactly the same boat,” the 71-year-old says.

Petersen, who manages a number of severe health conditions, found it “extremely difficult to cope because of the heat”.

“I went out once to [get] the mail and I thought ‘I’m going to pass out’,” she says.

“I’ve got a little cat, it worries me that he wants to go outside. I’ve got chickens out the back, you worry about them. And the garden is completely burnt.”

Beachgoers jumping off a jetty at Glenelg Beach in Adelaide in January, when  temperatures topped 46 degrees.

Beachgoers jumping off a jetty at Glenelg Beach in Adelaide in January, when temperatures topped 46 degrees.Credit:AAP

Such was the heat that Petersen could not leave the house to get groceries, instead relying on outside help or making do with what little food was in the cupboard.

In a submission to a Senate inquiry last year, the Australian Medical Association warned that heatwaves kill more Australians than any other type of natural disaster. The elderly and the ill are especially vulnerable – a problem set to be compounded by the ageing population.

The association cited “significant concerns” over the preparedness of the healthcare system to withstand the challenges of more frequent and severe extreme weather events.

Heatwaves cause a spike in ambulance callouts, hospital admissions and GP visits. A GP working in Sydney’s west recently recounted a week in which she treated a warehouse worker who felt unwell after working in 40-degree temperatures, elderly patients with heat exhaustion from taking public transport and a patient with multiple sclerosis experiencing fatigue and difficulty walking.

During Adelaide’s heatwave, South Australian authorities reportedly declared a "code red" to release extra funds to homeless shelters, enabling them to extend their operating hours. A Red Cross phone service that checks on vulnerable people during heatwaves was also activated.

The Canberra Raiders train in the summer heat. The Climate Council says climate change threatens the viability of some sports as they are currently played.

The Canberra Raiders train in the summer heat. The Climate Council says climate change threatens the viability of some sports as they are currently played. Credit:Karleen Minney

Even the fittest among us are being forced to adapt to blistering temperatures when braving the outdoors. The Climate Council has warned that extreme weather events such as heatwaves threaten the viability of Australian sport as it is currently played - from the elite level down to backyard cricket.

Heat affecting players and spectators at the Australian Open has become a perennial issue, and the opening stages of January's Tour Down Under cycling event were shortened amid predictions of temperatures above 40 degrees.

Sheila Nguyen says climate change is affecting sport at every level.

“We are restricted [as] to when we can play, when we can ride our bike, when we can go and play beach cricket,” she says.

“All these things are changing the dynamic of the culture of sport, how we consume it and interact with it.”

New sports infrastructure should be designed to minimise heat – by avoiding large expanses of concrete, for example - and the duration, format and time of play for some sports may have to change, Nguyen says.

The consequences of severe weather can rock communities where sport is a lifeline, she says. She cites the Millennium drought last decade, where towns and cities were forced to adopt tight water restrictions. Sports grounds went unwatered and in some cases sport was cancelled altogether.

“[Cricket] pitches were cracked, all these children weren’t able to play sport. In the regional areas they rely so heavily on sport to connect with their neighbour who might live 100 kilometres away,” she says.

The alliance encourages the development of policies, appropriate infrastructure and climate scenario planning to sustain sports into the future.

Bushfires associated with climate change can cause havoc in small communities frequented by holidaymakers, such as this fire in Tathra, NSW, in March 2018.

Bushfires associated with climate change can cause havoc in small communities frequented by holidaymakers, such as this fire in Tathra, NSW, in March 2018.Credit:Dan Bennett

When summer gets unbearable, some might consider getting out of town. But Griffith University tourism expert Susanne Becken says searing temperatures and other extreme weather will change the way we vacation.

People will increasingly travel to beaches, lakes and swimming holes, or seek out the cooler temperatures of mountains and hinterlands. Traffic congestion in these places will increase, and emergency services can suddenly be stretched if, say, a bushfire arrives and thousands of people need to be evacuated.

Meantime, "people will avoid the hot places", Becken says. These include outback and regional areas where governments are investing heavily in tourism infrastructure, she says, adding that global warming was "in some ways undermining our economic development policies".

Storms, hail, smoke from bushfires and other extreme weather can disrupt flights, throwing holiday schedules into disarray.

And of course the pernicious effects of climate change can badly damage tourism drawcards.

"The coral bleaching [on the Great Barrier Reef] is the most obvious. But also a forest fire in Tasmania -if the landscape is not as scenic or what you wanted to see is not there anymore, that’s obviously a longer-term problem," Becken says.

Bela Stantic has not given up on his road trip dreams. He still wants to see the underground town of Coober Pedy and spend a New Year's Eve at Uluru. But in future he'll do it a little differently.

"Summer was not a good time to travel anywhere," he says. "Next time I'll do it in July".

Nicole Hasham is environment and energy correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

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