Climate extremes – from bushfires to a polar vortex


February snow at White Rock, BC, image by George Davidge

February is the one month of the year when the climate extremes of the northern and southern hemisphere starkly remind us of the threat to civilisation posed by climate change.

In the northern hemisphere, a polar vortex in January and February brought record low sub-zero temperatures to the UK, Europe, USA and Canada. Cars disappeared beneath mounds of snow; Chicago’s river froze as temperatures dropped to a rare -46 degrees Celcius (wind chill temperature). The regular temperature at -30 degrees was just  2 degrees warmer than a 34-year-old record low.

I’m reliably informed that if you go outside in this kind of extreme weather, don’t blink – your eyelids will freeze shut. Mind you, there are enough selfies and images on social media to suggest that some happy snappers took the risk.

The image above was taken this week at White Rock, a coastal town in southern British Columbia, where the average winter high and low temperatures are Celsius 8 degrees and 2 degrees. It is rare to have extreme weather there (snow storms, ice pellets and freezing rain).

Even though I live Down Under, I’m attached to songs which evoke the wintry romance of the frozen north. They include Joni Mitchell, wishing she had a river to skate away on, Dar Williams, throwing her lover’s car keys into the water (where they froze, halfway down), and Dave Goulder’s song about northern hemisphere seasons, the January Man. “The January man he goes around in woollen coat and boots of leather The February man still shakes the snow from off his clothes and blows his hands…”

Meanwhile on the other side of the planet, Australians have just survived the hottest January since 1910 to suffer more of the same in February. On January 19, Melbourne residents endured 44° Celsius (it got to 47 in some outer suburbs).

In terms of climate extremes, most of Australia received less than 20% of normal rainfall in January. Canberra, the nation’s capital, normally known for bitter cold, had a record run of four days above 40C. A Bureau of Meteorology report also highlighted record long runs of consecutive hot days.

They included:

  • Birdsville (Qld) 10 consecutive days over 45C
  • Alice Springs (NT) 16 days in a row above 42C
  • Cloncurry (Qld) 43 consecutive days over 40C*
  • Camooweal (Qld) 40 consecutive days over 40C
  • Walungurru (NT) 27 consecutive days above 40C
  • Bourke (NSW) 21 consecutive days above 40C*

*broke State records

Australians also suffered through the highest overnight minimums on record, peaking at 36.6 degrees at Wanaaring in NSW.


Bushfire burning at Girraween National Park, image by Penny Davies

Searing hot temperatures sustained over many weeks turns native forest and grasslands into tinder-dry fuel. A stray cigarette butt, a lightning strike or a spark from a tractor-slasher is all it takes. Stanthorpe, normally the coldest place in Queensland, recorded a maximum temperature of 36.9°C  on January 19. This was one of the few places in the country to offer some overnight respite (10°C ). A lack of rain and sustained high temperatures contributed to a massive bushfire which started at Wallangarra on the Qld/NSW border and quickly spread to Girraween National Park.

The fire started on February 12 on the outskirts of Wallangarra, cutting a swathe through 43,000ha of bush and pasture. As of yesterday, the fire was still smouldering, although the threat to people and property around Wyberba, Ballendean and Eukey has abated. However, there’s a windy weekend ahead, so bush fire brigade volunteers will be on high alert until it rains.

Last Saturday, Queensland Fire and Emergency Services warned Granite Belt residents that a large, unpredictable fire was heading in a north-westerly direction through Girraween National Park with the potential to cross Pyramids Road. Residents of Eukey and surrounds were put on notice to be ready to evacuate.

Climate change skeptics will tell you Australia has always had climate extremes; bushfires, floods and droughts (as they drive their diesel 4WDs to a ridge for a better view – they can get 2GB reception up there too).

In the interests of balanced journalism, it seems only fair to provide a link to their view of the world):

But as we never tire of repeating here at FOMM HQ, 97% of the world’s climate scientists think climates extremes are happening and they are aggravated by human behaviour

We Aussies, sweltering through weeks of temperatures above 30°C in many locations where humidity is 70% or more, yearn for the hopefully cooler days of March. In the northern hemisphere, those enduring the extreme winter can but hope for an early thaw.

The climate change deniers and those who just don’t want to think about it need to be reminded in ways that have become obvious to a generation of bright young things who skipped school to make the point.

As you’d know, there are climate change skeptics in Australia, as there are in other industrial nations. They may be in the minority, but some of them are in government, which makes their opinions matter.

A Lowy Institute Poll of 1,200 Australians quizzed about climate change and energy found that 59% agreed with the statement: “climate change is a serious and pressing problem. We should begin taking steps now even if this involves significant costs.”

Furthermore, 84% agreed that “the government should focus on renewables, even if this means we may need to invest more in infrastructure to make the system more reliable”.

It is now five months since a United Nations climate panel warned that the world has about 12 years left to limit global warming to 1.5° Celsius. Australia and the rest of the world must virtually eliminate the use of coal for electricity within 22 years if there is to be a chance to save even some of the Great Barrier Reef. At 1.5°C, coral reefs are expected to decline by a further 70% to 90%, the report said.

More than 90 scientists drew together thousands of pieces of climate research for the report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The conclusion was that global emissions of greenhouse gas pollution must reach zero by about 2050 in order to stop global warming at 1.5° Celsius. At current rates, 1.5C would be breached as early as 2040 (just in time for those born today to celebrate their 21st birthdays – Ed).

Ah me, there’s more to come on this story, with the Kids vs Climate Change movement started by then 15-year-old Swede Greta Thunberg gathering pace. Following Greta’s lone, 20-day strike in August, Australia was one of the first countries to respond. Despite scornful rhetoric and table-thumping from Prime Minister Scott Morrison, 15,000 students went on strike in November. Contrary to claims that the protests were partisan (and organised by hardcore greenies), this week students protested outside the electorate office of Opposition Leader Bill Shorten. Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan branded the ongoing protests as “appalling political manipulation”.

On March 15, teens around the world will absent themselves from school to demand action from adults in power about climate extremes. As people with teenagers know full well, they are the cohort least likely to be manipulated, politically or otherwise.

Footnote: I almost forgot to leave you with this link to Dar Williams’ beautiful song February, which has been interpreted by some as being about a couple with Alzheimer’s, using winter as a metaphor. My friend Rebecca Wright, who like me sees it as more of an ending and a new beginning song, does a fine version.


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John Wightman (Dr)
John Wightman (Dr)
February 22, 2019 12:56 pm

…and it rained for 40 days and it rained for 40 nights…

RJ Bridge
RJ Bridge
February 22, 2019 1:37 pm

” ….. and they are aggravated by human behaviour….. ”
esp the govt-military-scientists responsible for “GeoEngineering and Weather Warfare” (in particular, the Usual Suspects of USA-Russia-China) – IMHO!!!

Frances Harper
Frances Harper
March 3, 2019 8:18 am

Did you read about weather systems “stalling” , explaining why extremes are becoming more intense?