MELBOURNE // The savage effects of climate change on health are to be investigated by a new multimillion-dollar study funded by the Australian government as researchers investigate the threats posed by more frequent heat waves, cyclones, fires and droughts. Scientists are warning that climatic shifts are likely to increase the incidence of infectious diseases, post-traumatic stress and heart ailments.
They also predict that climate change could have a near-apocalyptic effect on parts of Australia, which are expected to suffer more devastating bushfires, flooding and tropical storms. "They injure, they maim and they kill people, but they also cause a lot of environmental and social disruption," said Tony McMichael, a professor at the Australian National University in Canberra, which is involved in the study, for which the government paid AU$10 million (Dh24.8m).
"Post-traumatic stress disorders invariably follow and survivor guilt, those that say 'well, I was the lucky one, but I was not seriously injured or killed'. There's quite a widespread spectrum of consequences of these extreme weather events." Fires in the state of Victoria over the weekend have killed at least 96 people in the worst wildfire disasters in Australian history. At the end of last month, Melbourne, Australia's second largest city and capital of Victoria, roasted in its hottest period in more than a century as the southern metropolis endured several consecutive days of temperatures of more than 40°C, which gave residents a frightening insight into how the future could feel as the Earth warms.
In the tiny settlement of Kyancutta in South Australia the mercury peaked at 48.2°C. Across the south-east of the continent the scorching conditions resulted in dozens of sudden deaths, mainly of older residents, who had heart attacks and strokes that have been blamed on the unbearable heat. "It was a killer situation," said Neville Nicholls, a climate scientist at Melbourne's Monash University. "The heatwave has to have been catastrophic for the elderly in Melbourne.
"We know there are two vulnerable groups with heat waves; one is the very young, and people over about 65 years of age. If the average daily temperature is 30 degrees or above in Melbourne then we get a jump of about 20 per cent in deaths in the over-65 age group. It just gets worse and worse as the temperatures get higher. Around the world these hot extremes are getting hotter and more frequent and we can attribute this pretty easily to the enhanced greenhouse effect. It has a really simple effect - more heat waves mean more deaths."
Melbourne's red-hot spell caused chaos as railway lines buckled in the intense heat and the power network crumpled under unprecedented demand that left 500,000 homes and businesses without electricity. Ambulance crews in Victoria dealt with a 50-per-cent increase in emergency calls as more frail members of the community succumbed to the harsh conditions. "I was all right until the power went off because I've got angina and I was starting to get stressed out," said June Patterson, 81, from the Melbourne suburb of Essendon. "I was ready to break down and cry. It was like I was suffocating."
Ken Brownlie, a local trader, said the effect of so many unusually hot days has been brutal. "It was horrendous. It was like a war zone," Mr Brownlie said. "A lot of older people - you can see the look on their faces that they've just had it with the heat and it affects their health and they are frightened by it." There is also a warning that disease-carrying mosquitoes in Australia could advance farther south, drawn away from their traditional breeding grounds by increasingly warmer temperatures, and carrying with them such debilitating infections as dengue fever, Murray Valley encephalitis and Ross River virus.
"We understand that these are sensitive biological systems and most probably dengue will travel farther south as conditions become more supportive for it: warmer and wetter conditions," Mr McMichael said. "All of the work that has been done so far suggests that over the coming decades it [dengue] will tend to move farther from northern to southern Queensland and ultimately in continuingly warmer conditions farther down the New South Wales coast."
The psychological well-being of Australia's outback communities, already stretched to breaking point in many areas by the worst drought in memory, is also expected to deteriorate amid environmental upheaval. "Mental health and stress, never mind the dreaded aspect of self-harm, are serious in remote areas and are likely to be real facets of climate change," said Gordon Gregory, executive director of the National Rural Health Alliance.
For farming families who will eventually be forced to walk away from unviable, desiccated land, there is likely to be a high emotional cost. "That is an instance of the sort of personal trauma that will be confronted," Mr Gregory said. "It is never easy especially if the family has been on the property for several generations. There have been farmers in financial stress and therefore mental stress for some time. This is not new, but what is new is the extent to which it is becoming a regular part of life in rural Australia."