Children born in the last 10 years in Melbourne will surely be acclimatised to heatwaves unlike any preceding generation. A string of four sequential days above 40 degrees has become unexceptional for ‘generation-hot’, and that’s a worry.
Last week, Melbourne was uncomfortable for children under 10 years old, but the oppressive heat was not a climate anomaly. It was summer as they know it.
The babes of 2005 were born into Australia’s hottest year on record. Average temperatures in 2005 were 1.03 degrees higher than the long-term averages recorded between 1961 and 1990.
Nine and ten-year-olds have lived through the deadly sauna of January 2009, when more than 350 Victorians were believed to have died as a result of the late January heatwave, and the newest hottest year on record, 2013.
My younger child was born mid-January 2005. In his first two weeks, he experienced three days above 35 degrees. In his first two months, he sweated through two full weeks above 30 degrees – in a non-air-conditioned weatherboard home in the concrete-lined inner city.
Over the past nine years, he has experienced 23 days above 40 degrees – including the sweltering days preceding Black Saturday in 2009. Comparatively, by my ninth birthday 30 years ago, I had experienced just 11 days above 40 degrees.
New Year’s Eve 1995 in Melbourne was a tepid 21.5 degrees. The first New Year’s Eve for those born in 2005 was double this at 43 degrees. I recall my near one-year-old son crawling into the icy drinks-tub to find relief as revellers dripped their way into the new year.
The weather-memories of today’s nine-year-olds must be programmed with annual periods of blistering heat, and adaptive responses to the stifling climate. These children are familiar with schools’ ‘hot day time-tables’ and the ‘no hat, no play’ rule enforced during the summer school terms.
For them, heatwaves evoke a familiar routine of bunkering down – a reverse hibernation of sorts – in shopping centres, cinemas and swimming pools. Trains and trams halt in their tracks, bitumen melts and shop-doors close – all quite unremarkably.
Pets are brought indoors or kept well watered, and fire-warnings are repeated on radio and television incessantly.
These defining childhood experiences set the generations apart.
It is true that spikes in temperature and the January blasts above 40 degrees have always been present, but it is the frequency and duration of the extreme weather that has changed over the generations.
My son’s grandfather recalls days over 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37.8 degrees Celsius) as being stinkers, having experienced 19 days over 100 degrees F (and 13 days above 40 degrees C) in his first nine years in the 1940s.
Now, civilisation hangs on until 110 degrees F (43 degrees C) before it completely melts into dysfunction.
Our changing reactions have been recorded sporadically. On 6 January 1950, it was reported that “hundreds of people walked up and down the Esplanade at St Kilda … and cooled off after the hottest day since January 28 last year. Melbourne's maximum temperature was 97.6 degrees at 3:30pm” (36.4 degrees Celsius).
A day of 36 degrees is hardly newsworthy in 2014 – and would certainly make players at the Australian Open greatly relieved.
Like smoking bans, mobile phones, the Internet and Youtube, heatwaves are part of life for Melbourne’s primary school children.
‘Generation-hot’ is programmed to accept weeks above 40 degrees as a natural part of a Melbourne summer. The heatwave phenomenon, and climate change, has etched its existence into Australian life.
If heatwaves are normalised for the next generation, there is a high risk of complacency.
For these children, life is not hotter than it was. Life is just hot and the ‘olden days’ of sub-forty degree summer heatwaves are history.