Australian heatwave sign of climate change

SYDNEY (Reuters) - A heatwave scorching southern Australia, causing transport chaos by buckling rail lines and leaving more than 140,000 homes without power, is a sign of climate change, the government said on Thursday.

Scaffolders, who were given the day off because of high temperatures, jumps off Beach Pier in Melbourne January 29, 2009. Temperatures are expected to reach 43 degrees centigrade today in Melbourne, according to local media. REUTERS/Mick Tsikas

The Bureau of Meteorology is forecasting a total of six days of 40-plus Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) temperatures for southern Australia, which would equal the worst heatwave in 100 years.

Climate Change Minister Penny Wong said the heatwave, which started on Wednesday, was the sort of weather scientists had been warning about.

“Eleven of the hottest years in history have been in the last 12, and we also note, particularly in the southern part of Australia, we’re seeing less rainfall,” Wong told reporters.

“All of this is consistent with climate change, and all of this is consistent with what scientists told us would happen.”

The maximum temperature in southern Australia on Thursday was 46 degrees Celsius (114.8 Fahrenheit) in four towns.

While uncomfortable for residents in towns and some of Australia’s biggest cities, the heatwave was seen as having little effect on Australia’s commodities-driven economy, with the worst of the weather away from the nation’s grain belt.

Health officials in South Australia and Victoria states have advised people to stay indoors, use air conditioners and keep up fluid intake. More than 140,000 homes were without power in southern Australia as the heat took its toll on the power grid.

National power regulator NEMCO told electricity companies to start load-shedding, temporarily taking customers off power to lighten the load.

In Melbourne, which recorded its hottest day in 70 years at 44 degrees Celsius (111 Fahrenheit) on Thursday, rail lines buckled and trains were canceled, stranding thousands of hot and angry commuters.

Free bottled water was handed out to train travelers in Adelaide to help them cope with the delays and heat.

The heatwave forced the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne to suspend outside matches, with officials closing the retractable roof over the main stadium for the past two days.

Australia is one of the most vulnerable nations to climate change due to its hot, dry climate and is already gripped by drought. Fire bans have been declared in southern Australia to prevent major bushfires but small fires are already burning.

The extreme temperatures were threatening Melbourne’s parks and gardens, said Mayor Robert Doyle, who announced an increase in water supplies to counter a 40 percent drop in soil moisture.

“The signs are there that our precious trees are struggling in this brutal weather,” said Doyle.

Melbourne has 60,000 trees in its parks and streets and officials said they were most concerned about 15,000 trees growing in irrigated turf.

“Our parks staff have indicated a number of trees are defoliating and canopies are thinning. Once defoliation takes place it is very hard to save the tree,” said Doyle.

Greens Senator Scott Ludlam said the public transport breakdowns underscored the need to upgrade the nation’s aging transport infrastructure to cope with climate change.

“Taxpayers deserve public transport infrastructure that’s resilient and able to withstand the changing climate,” he said.

Reporting by Michael Perry; Editing by Paul Tait