A historical perspective on Australian temperature extremes

Abstract

Global temperature increases are most clearly detected in the shifting distribution of extreme events. Australia’s warming climate has resulted in significant changes in the frequency of temperature extremes, with a general increase in heatwaves and a reduction in the number of cold days. Here, we present the longest historical analysis of daily Australian temperature extremes and their societal impacts compiled to date. We use a newly consolidated early instrumental dataset and a range of historical sources for the South Australia region of Adelaide—the nation’s driest state, containing the most heatwave-affected city in Australia—to investigate any changes in the characteristics of daily temperature extremes back to 1838. We identify multidecadal variability in heatwave and snow event frequency with a peak in the early twentieth century, with an overall decrease in cold extremes and an increase in heatwaves in the region over the 1838–2019 period. Documentary and instrumental records show a decrease in the number of snow events in Adelaide, and a clear increase in the number of heatwaves since the late twentieth century. To gain dynamical insight into historical extremes in South Australia, detailed case studies are presented to compare the synoptic characteristics of historical hot and cold extremes and their impacts. We place a particular emphasis on lesser-known events of the pre-1910 period and rare low-elevation snowfall. Significantly, this is the first study to provide long-term evidence for a reduction of low-elevation snow events and cold outbreaks in Australia. Finally, a discussion is provided on the value and limitations of using historical instrumental and documentary data to assess long-term changes in Australian temperature extremes and their potential to improve future climate change risk assessment.

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Acknowledgements

JG and LA were funded by Australian Research Council Project DE130100668. JG acknowledges funding from the ARC Centre for Climate Extremes (CE170100023) and the Australian National University’s Futures Scheme-funded project Using historical weather extremes to improve future climate change risk assessment. LA acknowledges support from the Victorian Government’s Climate and Water Initiative. We are very grateful to Mac Benoy, Catherine Courtney, Tony Rogers, and the Australian Meteorological Association volunteers for digitising and providing access to the West Terrace temperature observations for the 1856–1920 period. Many thanks to Tim Cowan and two anonymous reviewers whose feedback improved this manuscript. JG and LA greatly appreciate Janet’s Rice’s permission to publish this study following the untimely death of our coauthor and mentor, Dr. Penny Whetton, during the final stages of this work.

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Gergis, J., Ashcroft, L. & Whetton, P. A historical perspective on Australian temperature extremes. Clim Dyn 55, 843–868 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00382-020-05298-z

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Keywords

  • Australia
  • Adelaide
  • Temperature
  • Extremes
  • Heatwaves
  • Cold extremes
  • Snow
  • Historical climatology