Hint: it’s not magpie swooping.
What natural disaster kills the most people in Australia? Cyclones? Floods? Maybe bushfires?
Australia’s most deadly natural disaster is the unassuming but disastrous heatwave. And they’re set to worsen.
Scientists from Macquarie University examined over 160 years’ worth of records and discovered that in Australia, heatwaves are responsible for more deaths than every other natural disaster combined.
Unsurprisingly the majority of heatwave-related deaths occur in summer, with the 27th January (the day after the Australia Day public holiday) standing out as the deadliest day.
Macquarie University risk scientist Lucinda Coates put this down to a number of factors:
“Many people, in celebrating this holiday with barbeques and picnics outdoors, are subject to a significant amount of heat exposure and dehydration, the latter exacerbated by consumption of alcohol.”
Dubbed “the silent killer”, heatwaves lack the media attention that other extreme weather events like bushfires or cyclones create. For example, during the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires 173 people died, making it Australia’s most deadly bushfire event. However, more than double that number (374 people) died from heat stress brought on by the concurrent heatwave.
Heatwaves increase pressure on our infrastructure and public facilities such as hospitals. The author of the Climate Council’s latest report on heatwaves, Dr Liz Hanna, says a “whole of society approach” is needed to address this growing threat.
“It’s a whole of society approach. People need to look after themselves and look after each other,” Dr Hanna said.
“It’s not only boosting capacity to respond to what we’ve had, we need to plan to boost our capacity for what’s yet to come because the worst hasn’t really happened yet.”
Greater flexibility in hospitals, increased capacity in emergency services, and changes to school, work and recreation schedules are possible ways to combat heatwave deaths.
The very young, the very old, those with pre-existing medical conditions and the poor are the most at risk during a heatwave. To stay safe during a heatwave, the SES recommends staying hydrated, minimising sun exposure, dressing appropriately, preparing your home and making use of public air conditioning facilities if you have none.