Perth is no stranger to the odd seasonal smog caused by controlled burns, nor are we strangers to the odd intense summer storm. With the climate crisis imminent, get ready for these occasional occurrences to happen more often and, with them, increasing issues for public health. The frequency of bushfires, length of droughts, intensity of heatwaves and the average rainfall are all expected to rise. We could quantify the cost of climate change economically and environmentally speaking, but we are already seeing the extent of damage it can do to our lives. The effects of the climate crisis are already visible and I’m afraid the diagnosis is not good.
Heatwaves, droughts, bushfires and smoke
In Australia alone, the average annual temperature has risen 1°C since 1910, with 90 per cent of that warming occurring since 1950. Every year is subsequently becoming the hottest on record.
Because of this increase in temperature, Australia will be facing more intense heatwaves and longer, harder droughts. Heatwaves are not only more probable, but they are already occurring more often. Prolonged exposure to heat can cause cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke, the latter of which can be life-threatening. During heatwaves, the public also faces a greater risk from food-transmitted diseases including gastro.
Droughts pose a risk to livestock and agriculture, as well as the mental health of residents in rural areas in particular. A report by the ABC titled ‘Drought-stricken communities waiting for mental health services’ revealed the lack of these facilities provided/available to rural Australian communities. Social isolation and physical illness causes strains on the mental health of rural populations, and the economic hardship that drought creates can only get worse. Drought length is expected to increase, and in WA we are already seeing the devastating effects of drought.
Rainfall deficiencies across a 15-month period. Source: Bureau of Meteorology
Bushfires occur more often during heatwaves, and some models predict the extreme fire danger cases across south-east Australia are likely to occur 15-65 per cent more often by the year 2020 (compared to 1990). The Department of Environment and Conservation predicts harsher and longer bushfire seasons for WA, with the south-west experiencing decreased rainfall and an increase in temperatures.
When bushfires occur, they can be tragic: in Victoria’s Black Saturday bushfires of 2009 we all saw the effects of the disaster on a widespread but close-knit community. The smoke spread was visible in Antarctica. The Black Saturday bushfires resulted in a death toll of 173 people, 44 per cent of whom were elderly, children or disabled people. Over 2,000 homes were destroyed and over 8,000 livestock perished. The Black Saturday bushfire is a worst-case instance. Between 1901 and 2011, there were 825 bushfire-related deaths in Australia.
Bushfire smoke causes bad visibility, but inhalation can cause inflammation in the lungs, aggravate any existing respiratory diseases and lead to cancer. During the 2013 bushfires in the Blue Mountains the percentage of individuals suffering from asthma conditions who sought hospital treatment increased by 124 per cent—air quality was reported as 50 times worse than usual.
One study discovered known hazardous particles of carbon monoxide, acrolein and formaldehyde in air samples captured by firefighters. Carbon monoxide reduces oxygen transportation in the blood; acrolein affects upper respiratory function; formaldehyde (while naturally-occurring) can cause skin and eye irritation, and in some cases, cancer.
The mental health effects of bushfires can be even more dangerous, as they can last for a sustained period of time. Trauma, PTSD, anxiety and depression are all known effects of bushfires.
Flooding and storms around the nation
Climate change will also alter the cooler months, increasing the likelihood of coastal flooding, and the severity of storms.
Permafrosts in the Arctic circle are melting 70 years sooner than predicted, which could not only cause sea levels to rise even further, but also spread diseases previously trapped by the ice. One instance happened in Siberia three years ago when an Anthrax outbreak infected at least 20 people.
The sea level has risen over 20cm since the mid-to-late 19th century, and could still rise from between 0.3-1.0m in the next century, compared to 2000 levels. The sea level in some parts of WA has risen by more than double other national averages. Any rise in sea level exacerbates the risks of coastal flooding, particularly during storms.
“Characteristics of Australia’s future climate. Source: BoM, State of the Climate 2014, published by CSIRO and BoM.” Source: Coast Adapt.
In 2011, half an hour of heavy rainfall (40–50mm) caused flash flooding which killed 23 people in Toowoomba and the Lockyer Valley (QLD). Flooding not only causes damage to property and loss of life, but it also contaminates food and drinking water supplies. Flooding can cause large bodies of stagnant water to remain, which will increase the risk of a growth in the mosquito population and, with it, the risk of disease transmitted by mosquitoes.
After severe storms, survivors are 25 per cent more likely to experience depression. Thunderstorms can also cause asthma, and higher pollen counts could cause an increase in cases of allergic respiratory disease.
How equipped are Western Australians?
Our state alone is already experiencing heatwaves during summer, as well as severe tropical storms in the north and decreased rainfall along the west coast. Since 1950, the number of heatwaves that have occurred has increased by 50 per cent. Between the years 1994 and 2006 there were 20 heatwave-related deaths.
Large parts of Australia are vulnerable to the myriad of effects of climate change. Adding to that vulnerability are the recent budget cuts to research organisations that would investigate ways to resist the effects of climate change.
In order to best prepare our society for the impacts of climate change, the government needs to adapt to the growing demand for services created by the hazardous effects of global warming, particularly for rural communities. It’s no secret that the climate is changing and, along with it, so must our attitudes towards its effects on public health.