How Australia’s extreme heat might be here to stay

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Media captionWarmer seas are turning Great Barrier Reef turtles female, a study has found

A section of highway connecting Sydney and Melbourne started to melt. Bats fell dead from the trees, struck down by the heat.

On the northern Great Barrier Reef, 99% of baby green sea turtles, a species whose sex is determined by temperature, were found to be female.

In outer suburban Sydney, the heat hit 47.3C (117F) before a cool change knocked it down – to the relative cool of just 43.6C in a neighbouring suburb the following day.

Scenes from a sci-fi novel depicting a scorched future? No, just the first days of 2018 in Australia, where summer is in fierce form.

With parts of the US suffering through a particularly grim winter, extremes in both hemispheres have triggered discussions about the links between current events and the build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Climate change ‘no brainer’

The climate system is incredibly complex and no weather event can be directly attributed to rising emissions, but everything that is experienced today happens in a world that is about one degree warmer than the long-term mean.

Prof Andy Pitman, the director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes at the University of New South Wales, says given the average temperature has risen it is a “no brainer” that the likelihood of the sort of heat that hit Sydney last week has also increased.

“It was a meteorological anomaly, but the probability works a bit like if you stand at sea level and throw a ball in the air, and then gradually make your way up a mountain and throw the ball in the air again,” he says.

“The chances of the ball going higher increases dramatically. That’s what we’re doing with temperature.”

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