Posts Tagged ‘heatwaves’

Heatwaves: From One Extreme To Another

August 8, 2015

When Is A Heatwave Not A Heatwave?

When the Bureau of Meteorology defines it out of existence.

In his reply to me on behalf of Dr Vertessy, Bob Baldwin wrote:

“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.  ……….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.”

After some digging, I found this paper which describes the Bureau’s methodology used in their Pilot Heatwave Forecast:

The Excess Heat Factor: A Metric for Heatwave Intensity and Its Use in Classifying Heatwave Severity, John R. Nairn and Robert J. B. Fawcett (2015)

The method is quite easy to follow and implement, and I was able to replicate results for the 2014 Melbourne heatwave exactly and use it successfully for other single locations.   It is designed for use with AWAP gridded data of course to give forecast maps.  Note this is raw data, not homogenised.  I downloaded all data from Climate Data Online.

There are several steps.  Readers should read the paper for full details.  Briefly, using a daily mean temperature calculated by averaging the day’s maximum and the following night’s minimum, three-day means are calculated.  These are then compared by subtracting the previous 30 days’ daily means (as people acclimatise to changed temperatures in this period).  Differences that exceed the 95th percentile of all three-day means from 1971 to 2000 are multiplied by the three-day mean to give the Excess Heat Factor, which indicates heatwave.  This is then compared with the 85th percentile of all positive EHFs from 1958 to 2011 to give a severity index, and if it exceeds 3 times the 85th percentile this becomes an extreme heatwave event.

From the paper:

The intent of these definitions is to create a heatwave intensity index and classification scheme which is relative to the local climate. Such an approach is clearly necessary given the abundant evidence that people and supporting infrastructure are largely adapted to the local climate, in physiology, culture and engineered supporting infrastructure.”

Here are the results for Melbourne- with all its UHI effect of course.

Fig. 1: Decadal (running 3653 day) count of positive Excess Heat Factor (heatwave) days in Melbourne

Decadal cnt pos EHF days Melbourne

Fig.2: Decadal count of Severe Heatwave Days

Decadal cnt severe HW days Melbourne

Fig.3:  Decadal Count of Extreme Heatwave Days

Decadal cnt extreme HW days Melbourne

Notice how Melbourne heatwaves of all types have been increasing and extreme events are currently at the highest level “ever”.

How does this apply to various other Australian locations?  I decided to check with the extremes- the hottest and the coldest Australian locations, Marble Bar in the north west of W.A. and Mawson Base in Australia’s Antarctic Territory.

Fig. 4:


The old Marble Bar station closed in 2006.  I have concatenated the old Marble Bar data with the new, from 2003. This makes very little difference to the calculations but extends the record to the present.

Fig. 5: As for Melbourne, decadal count of heatwave days

pos EHF days marble bar 2

Fig. 6:  Severe heatwaves

count severe HW days marble bar 2

Fig. 7:

count  extreme HW days marble bar 2

It is clear that local climate does make a big difference to heatwaves by this definition.  In fact, Melbourne has more extreme heatwave days than Marble Bar!

How does this method of detecting and measuring heatwaves deal with Marble Bar’s record heatwave of 1923-24?

According to the Australian Government’s website, Disaster Resilience Education for Schools at

“Marble Bar in Western Australia holds the record for the longest number of hot days in a row: the temperature was above 37.8°C for 160 days in 1923-24.”

I count 158 days consecutively from daily data at Climate Data Online.  The total for the 1923-24 summer from 13 October to 19 April was 174 days.  That is indeed a long period of very hot weather.

Surprisingly, the BOM does not class that as a long or extreme heatwave.  Apparently, according to this metric, there were only four short heatwaves, one of them severe, and none extreme.  For the entire period, there was only one severe heatwave day – 3 February.

Fig. 8:  Marble Bar 1923-24 summer.  I have marked in the old “ton”, 100 F, or 37.8C.  Squint hard to see the “severe’ heatwave around 3 February, but the heatwave around 22 February is invisible to the naked eye.

EHF Marb Bar 1923 1924 2

Yes, the old timers at Marble Bar were pretty tough and would be used to hot conditions.  But not to recognise this old record heatwave when every day in over five months was considerably above body temperature is laughable.

For comparison, Figure 9 shows 182 day counts of days that were over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, or 37.8 degrees Celsius.  (The old record finishes in 2006.)

Fig. 9:  Running 182 day counts of days over 100 F.  1923-24 is circled.

Days 100F Marb Bar

Note there were two other years when there were more than 170 days over 100F.

Figure 10 is from Figure 16 in the Nairn and Fawcett paper, and is a map of the level of Excess Heat Factor across Australia during the heatwave of January-February 2009.

Fig. 10:  Figure 16 from Nairn and Fawcett (2014)- Excess Heat levels across Australia 21 January – 11 February 2009.

Fig16 from paper max ehf 2009

The area around Marble Bar has a level of between 0 and 10.  My calculations show this is correct- EHF reached 0.08 on 23 January- a mild heatwave.  Readers may be interested to know that maximum temperature was above 40 degrees Celsius from 1 January to 24 January, and minima were not below 24.3.

The authors, and their employer, the Bureau, are in effect telling Marble Bar locals their heatwaves don’t rate because they’re used to the heat.

Now I shall turn to the other extreme- Mawson.

Firstly, plots of the range of minima for each day of the year:

Fig. 11:  Scatterplot of minima for each day of the year at Mawson Base

minima v day Mawson

Fig. 12: maxima:

maxima v day Mawson

Fig. 13:  Decadal count (running 3653 day count) of days with positive Excess Heat Factor, i.e., by definition, heatwave days

Decadal cnt pos EHF days Mawson

Fig. 14:  Decadal count of days in severe heatwave:

Decadal cnt severe HW days Mawson

Fig. 15:  Decadal count of days in Extreme heatwave:

Decadal cnt extreme HW days Mawson

Apparently, Antarctica gets more extreme heatwave days than Melbourne, or Marble Bar!

Of course, critics will say this metric was never intended for use in Antarctica, and I agree: no one would seriously claim there are heatwaves there.  However, if heatwaves are to be 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”, and NOT by comparison with any absolute threshold, then this analysis of its use there is valid.  “High” temperature by this definition is relative to the local climate, wherever “local” is. If this metric fails in Antarctica, it fails everywhere.


The Bureau of Meteorology’s metric for heatwaves is a joke.  It may accurately detect heatwaves in the southern fringe of Australia, and a further use may be to support Dr Vertessy’s outlandish claims.  However, it fails to cope with different climates, particularly extremes.  A methodology that fails to detect heatwaves at Marble Bar, and creates them in Antarctica, is worse than useless- it is dangerous.

Are We Getting More Heatwaves?

April 14, 2015

As it is now two weeks (nine business days) since I questioned Dr Vertessy on his claims in his ABC Radio interview, it appears an answer is still to be given, so I shall post what I have found so far.

Dr Vertessy claimed that we are seeing “of the order of five times the number of very serious heatwaves” as in the middle of last century.  Not knowing Dr Vertessy’s definition of a “very serious heatwave”, I have used the following metric:

“Three days or more in a row in summer (December- February) where the maximum temperature is in the top 5% of temperatures for that day at that location, with daily benchmarks calculated using daily maxima for each month from 1961 to 1990.”

I have also used as an absolute metric of very hot days the Bureau’s own definition, days above 40 degrees Celsius.  I have used ACORN-SAT maxima to 31 December 2014 downloaded directly from the Bureau’s Acorn site, and daily maxima from 1 January to 28 February this year for each site, downloaded from Climate Data Online.

Note that this does not consider other serious factors such as humidity or night time minima.

I have initially looked at all state capitals, and will later look at other locations.

I have calculated decadal running counts of the number of days meeting the criterion to show how hot weather has changed over time.

So what did I find to be the answer to “Are we getting five times more heatwaves than we did 60 years ago”?  Mostly no, but it depends where you look.

Fig. 1: Decadal count of heatwave days in Adelaide

Decadal cnt 95 3d heatwaves summer Adelaide

Yes, but the peak may be past.

Fig. 2: Decadal count of >40C days in Adelaide

Decadal cnt 40 Adelaide

This shows a distinct recent rise.

Fig. 3: Decadal count of heatwave days in Brisbane

Decadal cnt 95 3d heatwaves summer Brisbane

A peak 10 years ago, dropping to zero heatwaves in the decade to 2015.

Fig. 4: Decadal count of >40C days in Brisbane

Decadal cnt 40 Brisbane

One day, 22 February 2004.

Fig. 5: Decadal count of heatwave days in Darwin

Decadal cnt 95 3d heatwaves Darwin

As Darwin doesn’t have “summers”, the count was of all days.  Note the 1930s and 1970s.  Darwin is not seeing more heatwaves.  Darwin has never had a day over 40C.

Fig. 6: Decadal count of heatwave days in Hobart

Decadal cnt 95 3d heatwaves summer Hobart

Hobart has had no heatwave days in the past decade, compared with five in the 1950s.

Fig. 7: Decadal count of >40C days in Hobart

Decadal cnt 40 Hobart

Hobart has fewer extremely hot days than in the past.

Fig. 8: Decadal count of heatwave days in Melbourne

Decadal cnt 95 3d heatwaves summer Melbourne

Melbourne has fewer heatwave days than the middle of last century.

Fig. 9: Decadal count of >40C days in Melbourne

Decadal cnt 40 Melbourne

Melbourne has more very hot days than it did in the 1950s, but less than the 1940s.

Fig. 10: Decadal count of heatwave days in Perth

Decadal cnt 95 3d heatwaves summer Perth

Perth has had 10 heatwave days in the past decade.  In the decade to 1955 it had 6- but in the 1960s it had three times the current number.

Fig. 11: Decadal count of >40C days in Perth

Decadal cnt 40 Perth

The recent peak was one more than in the 1960s.  The warming since the 1970s is clearly visible.

Fig. 12: Decadal count of heatwave days in Sydney

Decadal cnt 95 3d heatwaves summer Sydney

Four days in the last 10 years, compared with zero in the 1940s and 1950s- but less than the 1960s.

Fig. 13: Decadal count of >40C days in Sydney

Decadal cnt 40 Sydney

The current peak of seven days in the past 10 years of very hot days is about the same as the 1940s and 1960s, but much less than the 1980s.

Technically, Dr Vertessy is correct in his claim of “of the order of five (four to six?) times the number of very serious heatwaves” as in the middle of last century, at Adelaide, Darwin, and Sydney, but not at Brisbane, Melbourne, Hobart, or Perth.  However, Sydney had far more in the 1960s, and Darwin had as many in the 1970s and far more in the 1930s.  Adelaide alone shows a clear picture of many more heatwave days in the past 10 years.

In several of the records it is possible to see cycles of 15 – 20 years duration.  While there is an argument that heatwaves and extremely hot days are weather events, not climatic, resulting from blocking highs or the lateness of sea breezes, these apparent cycles indicate a climatic influence.  What would cause blocking highs to be more persistent, or sea breezes to be consistently later, for 10 years or more?  Atmospheric circulation patterns, including the location of the sub-tropical ridge, would appear to be the major influence.

The longer term analysis from 1910 shows a more complete picture than since the 1950s.  Wouldn’t it be good to use “carefully curated” Acorn maxima from before 1910.

In a future post I will look at other locations, as a continent’s climate extremes can’t be usefully analysed with only seven sites.  As well, this analysis has used ACORN-SAT data only.   What will the raw data show?  Therefore I will also compare results for Acorn and raw.   Bourke might prove interesting.

Meanwhile, I am waiting patiently for Dr Vertessy’s response.  Apart from Adelaide, the state capitals certainly don’t support his claim.

How Hot Is Brisbane? With new, ‘improved’, daily benchmarks!

March 15, 2015

Recently I briefly posted about Brisbane, using 29.5 C as the heatwave bench mark.  Silly me- after checking Dr Perkins’ site (Scorcher) I now understand that Dr Perkins was not calculating a single bench mark temperature for a heatwave.  She calculates benchmark temperatures for every single day of the year.  Temperatures in the top 10% for each date for three days in a row constitute a heatwave- including in winter.  Thus Brisbane can have a heatwave in mid-July if the temperature is over 22.4 degrees for three days.  Some heatwave!  A real scorcher!  Only one winter ‘heatwave’ has ever been over 30 degrees (33.7 C in 2009).

It is interesting that Dr Perkins’ website, Scorcher! has this caveat on the front page: is intended as an educational site. It should not be used for any policy decisions and comes with no warranty.”

However, silly as it sounds for winters, I decided to attempt to replicate Dr Perkins’ heatwave findings for Brisbane.  For the years 1961 to 1990, I sorted each month’s days from hottest to coldest, and found the value for the top 10 percent of each month.  I then used this value for each month, and calculated a centred 31 day running mean to give a benchmark value for each day of the year.  This value is used to flag days hot enough, and if there are three or more in a row, there’s your ‘heatwave’.  Rough and ready, and probably a very different method to Dr Perkins’, but values for heatwave benchmarks should be similar- if anything, a little low.  Results are graphed below.

Fig.1: Seasonal count of heatwave days, showing that yes, the number of heatwave days has increased.

hw days seas bris

Fig.2: Spring count of heatwave days (Benchmark ranges from 24.8 to 30.1 C)

 hw days spring bris

Fig.3: Length of spring heatwaves

spr hw length bris

Fig.4: Temperatures of spring heatwaves

spring temps daily bm brisbane

Fig.5: Number of heatwaves in spring

 cnt spr heatwaves bris

So yes, by this definition it is correct to say in spring Brisbane has slightly more heatwaves, which have more heatwave days, are slightly longer, and very slightly warmer, if you trust linear trends as an analysis tool for such non-linear data- (without the linear trend line and equation, it is difficult to see any trend in heatwave days, duration, or temperature).

However, the results for other seasons are also revealing.

Fig.6: Temperatures of summer heatwaves  (Benchmark ranges from 30.1 to 30.9C)

summer temps daily bm brisbane

Fig.7: Temperatures of winter ‘heatwaves’ (Benchmark ranges from 22.4 to 24.7 C)

 winter temps daily bm brisbane

Fig.8: Temperatures of autumn ‘heatwaves’ (Benchmark ranges from 24.3 to 30.2 C)

autumn temps daily bm brisbane

Winter, summer, and spring all have slightly more and warmer heatwave days (summer heatwaves are 0.2 degree warmer after 65 years, winter ‘heatwaves’ will be half a degree warmer in 900 years!), but autumn is declining in all areas- length, temperature, and number.   Funny that Dr Perkins didn’t mention Brisbane autumns.

And the most important thing about Brisbane heatwaves is not included in Dr Perkins definition- humidity.