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Record-breaking heat wave and "catastrophic" wildfires hit Australia

Firefighters refill their water from a water tanker in Pacific Drive in Deepwater National Park area of Queensland on November 28, 2018.
Firefighters refill their water from a water tanker in Pacific Drive in Deepwater National Park area of Queensland on November 28, 2018. Photo: Rob Griffith/AFP/Getty Images.

Northeastern Australia is facing an unprecedented wildfire situation and all-time record heat, with numerous milestones eclipsed during the past week in parts of Queensland. The extreme weather event marks the first time that Queensland's fire danger has been rated as "catastrophic," which is the highest threat level on their scale.

Why it matters: The heat is coming at what is not typically the warmest time of year in northeastern Queensland. More intense and longer-lasting heat waves are one of the clearest effects of a warming planet due largely to human emissions of greenhouse gases.

Threat level: Nearly 140 wildfires are burning in Queensland amid the unprecedented heat. In Australia, as in the U.S., climate change is leading to an uptick in wildfires.

"We have never, ever, in this state, been in this situation before. Not at a catastrophic level and this is uncharted waters," Queensland Fire and Emergency Services commissioner Katarina Carroll told the AP.

By the numbers: Here are some of the all-time heat records that have fallen during this stretch.

  • Innisfail Airport: 42.3°C, or 108.1°F, which was its hottest day on record.
  • Townsville: 41.7°C, or 107°F, which set a November record.
  • Cooktown: 43.9°C, or 111.2°F, which was its hottest day on record.
  • Cairns: 42.6°C, or 108.7°F, which was its hottest day on record.

"This really has been an exceptional — and still is an exceptional — heat and fire event in Queensland," said Bureau of Meteorology state manager Bruce Gunn, according to the AP. "We've seen all-time temperature records absolutely shattered — records that have stood for 60 or 70 years."

  • The records are particularly remarkable since northeastern Queensland is a tropical region, where the weather is sultry but not typically so hot.
  • These heat records have also continued the string of extreme heat milestones set worldwide this year.

The bottom line: As multiple recent climate science reports make clear, increasing average temperatures lead to a higher probability of extreme heat events. And when these events occur, they tend to be more severe and longer-lasting.

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