FEATURE ARTICLE: THE EXCEPTIONAL HEATWAVE OF JANUARY-FEBRUARY 2009 IN SOUTH-EASTERN AUSTRALIA
South-eastern Australia was affected by one of the most extreme heatwaves in its history in late January and early February 2009. The heatwave extended from 27 January to 8 February, with its most acute phases from 28 to 30 January and on 7 February.
In the first stage of the heatwave, at the end of January, extreme heat covered much of Victoria and South Australia, as well as northern and eastern Tasmania. In Tasmania, a state record of 41.5°C was set at Flinders Island Airport on 29 January, but this was to last only one day, as Scamander reached 42.2°C on the 30th January. In total six sites broke the previous state record of 40.8°C, and nearly half the state had its hottest day on record on the 30th, with Launceston Airport (39.9°C) breaking its previous record by 2.6 degrees. Elsewhere on the 30th, Melbourne (45.1°C) and Adelaide (45.7°C) both narrowly missed all-time records, and some South Australian and Victorian stations set all-time records (many of which were to be broken the following week). Adelaide (33.9°C) also had its warmest night on record on the 29th, and Adelaide and Melbourne also set records by experiencing four and three consecutive days, respectively, above 43°C.
Conditions were slightly cooler, particularly on the coast, over the next few days (although Mildura remained above 40°C throughout, eventually setting a Victorian record with twelve consecutive days above that temperature), before rising again on 6 February, and most dramatically on the 7th. On that day the focus of the most extreme heat was in Victoria, with 24 of the state’s 35 long-term stations setting all-time records. This included Melbourne, which reached 46.4°C, breaking the 45.6°C set in January 1939. Hopetoun reached 48.8°C, a Victorian state record and the highest temperature ever recorded in the world so far south, and eight other sites broke the previous Victorian record, most notably the near-coastal location of Avalon Airport (47.9°C). Records were also set in South Australia, where Renmark’s 48.2°C was a state record for February, and in southern New South Wales, where Wagga Wagga Airport (45.2°C) reached 45°C for the first time.
The last part of the heatwave coincided with the ‘Black Saturday’ bushfires in Victoria, which caused the loss of 173 lives and the destruction of over 3,500 structures. It was estimated (Victorian Department of Human Services, 2009) that 374 excess deaths occurred in Victoria during the first week of the heatwave (prior to any influence from the bushfires).