On 30 March 2015, in response to some “interesting” claims made on ABC Radio by Dr Bob Vertessy, the head of the Bureau, I sent by the normal feedback channel four questions, summarised below:
Q.1: Can you please supply me with a reference to your data that show that the number one cause of death is heatwave?
Q.2: Can you please supply me with a reference to your data that show five times as many very serious heatwaves today compared with the middle of last century? Could you also please tell me your criteria for a very serious heatwave.
Q.3: In what way can 38.9%, 36%, or 34.1% difference in quadratic change (between trends of the supposedly “raw” Australian Water Availability Project data and those of the ACORN-SAT dataset) be interpreted as “no difference”, “exactly the same story”, or “the same result”?
Q.4: When can we expect to see the results of this further work (monthly and seasonal analysis of differences between AWAP and ACORN) published on the ACORN-SAT website? If it is available elsewhere please refer me to it. I am particularly interested in any difference in quadratic change in summer maxima between AWAP and ACORN-SAT, as this is relevant to heatwave analysis.
I followed up with reminder queries on 28 April, with an email to Bob Baldwin (the Parliamentary Secretary responsible for this farce the Bureau) on 1 May, a Formal Complaint on 18 May, another email query to him on 15 June, and phone calls to his office on 25 June and 10 July. In this last phone call I mentioned that I would approach the Opposition Environment Shadow Minister (Mark Butler) if I didn’t get a reply soon.
A reply was emailed to me on Tuesday 14 July.
Unfortunately, Baldwin’s reply contains no straight answers, avoids answering questions, gives misleading answers, contradicts itself, makes debateable interpretations, has at least two links to references that are not valid, and makes no apology or explanation for the delay.
Here is the full text of Baldwin’s reply, emailed on Tuesday 14 July, followed by my comments.
“I refer to your email of 1 May 2015, concerning an email sent to the Bureau of Meteorology’s Queensland Regional Office regarding an ABC radio interview with the Director of Meteorology.
As I am sure you can appreciate, the Bureau deals with a number of important issues in the interests of the public, including many severe weather events across the country. As such, the Bureau does not always have the capacity to provide detailed and tailored responses to the many individual enquiries they receive. I have, however, requested that the Bureau provide a full explanation to the four questions you raised in your email dated 30 March 2015. The responses are below:
1. Heatwaves kill more Australians than any other natural disaster. As outlined in Coates et al (2014), from 1844 to 2010, extreme heat events have been responsible for at least 5,332 fatalities in Australia, and since 1900, 4,555: more than the combined total of deaths from all other natural hazards. Refer:
-Coates, L., K. Haynes, J. O’Brien, J. McAneny and F.D. De Oliviera (2014)Exploring 167 years of vulnerability. An examination of extreme heat events in Australia 1844-2010. Environmental Science & Policy, 42, 33-44, doi:10.1016/j.envsci.2014.05.003.
-Queensland University of Technology (2010) Impacts and adaptation response of infrastructure and communities to heatwaves: the southern Australian experience of 2009, report for the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility, Gold Coast, Australia.
2. The duration, frequency and intensity of heatwaves have increased across many parts of Australia, based on daily temperature records since 1950, from when coverage is sufficient for heatwave analysis. Days where extreme heat is widespread across the continent have become more common in the past twenty years. Refer:
-Perkins, S.E., L.V. Alexander and J.R. Nairn (2012) Increasing frequency, intensity and duration of observed global heatwaves and warm spells. Geophys. Res. Let.., 39, L20714, doi:10.1029/2012GL053361.
-Perkins, S.E., (2015) A review on the scientific understanding of heatwaves- their measurement, driving mechanisms, and changes at the global scale. Journal of Atmospheric Research, submitted.
There are many valid ways to characterise discrete heatwaves and warm spells. The Bureau has adopted a particular operational heatwave definition motivated by human health considerations, defined as a period of at least three days where the combined effect of high temperatures and excess heat is unusual within the local climate. This does not preclude the use of other heatwave indices suitable for various research questions. The bulk of heatwaves at each location are low intensity with local communities expected to have adequate adaptation strategies for this level of thermal stress. Less frequent, higher intensity heatwaves are classified as severe and will challenge some adaptation strategies, especially for vulnerable sectors such as the aged or the chronically ill. Refer:
-Perkins, S.E. and L.V. Alexander (2013) On the Measurement of Heat Waves, J. Climate, Vol. 26, No. 13, pp.4500-4517. Doi: 10.1175/JCLI-D-12-00383.1)
-Bureau of Meteorology Pilot Heatwave Forecast: http://www.bom.gov.au/weather-services/about/heatwave-forecast.shtml.
3. As shown in the figure below, both adjusted and unadjusted temperatures show that Australia’s climate has warmed since 1910. Most of this warming has occurred since 1955, when adjusted and unadjusted data are virtually identical.
4.The Bureau continues to monitor and research Australian temperatures. This work is ongoing, and not being conducted as part of a specific project. Therefore, the work is undertaken as resources allow, and not subject to specific milestones and timelines. However, all significant research will be published and made available in the scientific literature following its completion and peer review.
The Bureau of Meteorology puts a great deal of time and effort into producing research and services around climate variability and change. The Bureau shares observations daily with the world and its research is peer reviewed and published in high quality international journals for everyone to see.
Noting the wide public availability of scientifically robust climate data and information, I encourage you to seek answers to questions through the publicly available information, such as the references provided above. The Bureau can provide any further analysis and response on a cost-recovery basis, in line with Australian Government Cost Recovery Guidelines.
Thank you for writing on this matter.
There is no mention of my Formal Complaint, just my first email to Baldwin’s office.
There is no apology, and no explanation for the delay in replying by either the Bureau or Baldwin.
Response to Question 1:
Why doesn’t Dr Vertessy just admit he may have misled listeners by not specifying that heatwaves are the number one cause of death “in natural disasters”?
Coates et al do indeed show that heatwave deaths exceed those of other natural disasters since 1844.
Figure 1: From Coates et al (2014)- heat related deaths 1844-2010 (click to enlarge)
However, they clearly show that the number of deaths (and much more so, the death rate) was consistently much higher in the first 75 years of last century than the past 40 years, and while the 2009 heatwave certainly caused a spike in the number of deaths, the mortality rate per 100,000 was eclipsed by the 1896 heatwave, as well as 1908 and 1939, and also 1910, 1912, 1914, and 1927. It appears from this graphic alone that “very serious heatwaves” were more common in the past than recently.
Figure 2 shows the average daily death rate per 1,000 for Australia from 2002 to 2012 taken from Australian Bureau of Statistics data (monthly death rate divided by the number of days in each month). It is clear that mortality peaks in late winter, and is lowest in summer (December – April).
Figure 2: Daily Mortality Rate per 1,000 Population, 2002 – 2012
Unfortunately, cold spells are not recognised as natural disasters, as they occur every year. Deaths from cold are not limited to hypothermia, or burial under snow, or crashes on slippery roads, or house fires caused by heaters. Every winter the death rate rises significantly as the sick and elderly succumb to chronic cardio-pulmonary illness, influenza, and pneumonia. Cold is the real “silent killer”.
Response to Question 2:
Notice how my question, specifically querying five times as many very serious heatwaves today compared with the middle of last century, which is what Dr Vertessy claimed, has been neatly avoided. The Bureau merely states that heatwaves “have increased”. Dr Vertessy’s outlandish claim cannot be substantiated.
After quoting Coates et al in answer to the previous question, the Bureau now claims heatwaves can only be analysed since 1950. If that is so, we can ignore the 70% of all heatwave deaths that occurred between 1900 and 1949, as only 1,378 heat related deaths occurred between 1950 and 2010 (see Figure 1 above). While exact figures are not available to me, it would be interesting to see the total for floods, cyclones, bushfires, storms, tornadoes, earthquakes and landslides for this period, and whether 1,378 heat related deaths exceeds this. Does the Bureau not see this contradiction?
Further, Perkins et al (2012) finds increased heatwave trends in percentage of days per season are “confined to… southern Australia”, not “many parts of Australia” as claimed in Baldwin’s reply, which is therefore misleading. The claim that “days where extreme heat is widespread across the continent have become more common in the past twenty years” is not supported by evidence in this reply, as the second Perkins paper referenced is not yet published. True or not, this is irrelevant.
Unfortunately, the link to the third Perkins paper does not work. The Bureau’s Heatwave Forecast appears to be based on a similar metric to that used by Nairn and Fawcett (2015) in calculating an Excess Heat Factor to identify and predict heatwaves. This at least will be useful.
Response to Question 3:
Again, the Bureau has chosen to avoid answering my question, clinging to their meme of warming since 1910, which I did not dispute, and that the difference between AWAP and ACORN since 1955 is negligible, which also I did not dispute. My question was whether this negligible difference was evident from 1911, which the Bureau’s own paper (CTR-050) shows to be false.
Response to Question 4:
A short answer to my query would have been “No”. No analysis of the difference between AWAP and ACORN on a monthly or seasonal basis has been undertaken. Apparently I am the only person to have done this, and my results showing massive differences in maxima trends, largely due to just two adjustments, have not been falsified.
The final paragraph of Baldwin’s reply could be paraphrased as “Don’t ask us any more awkward questions. If you do, you can expect to pay for the privilege of waiting three months to get a non-answer”.
Dr Vertessy has failed to substantiate his claims. After 15 weeks, the Bureau has been forced to make a reply, which avoids answering questions, gives misleading answers, contradicts itself, makes debateable interpretations, has at least two links to references that are not valid, and makes no apology or explanation for the delay. Thankfully, it does give references to some papers that give some information on heatwave detection.
What a farce. I am disappointed, but not surprised.
However, I do think Dr Vertessy’s forays into the media world will be much more carefully scripted in future.