Saturday, February 07, 2009

The Hotalypse

By Darryl Mason

I don't remember seeing lead stories on the evening news, or 'Horror Heatwave' newspaper front pages, when the temp hit the mid-40s in Western Sydney, as it seemed to do every summer, when I was a kid. It was summer, it was always fucking hot, and you got under the sprinkler if you couldn't handle the heat.

I don't even think those days of steaming humidity soaked summer were even called heatwaves by the older locals back then, who could always remember a summer's day "A lot bloody hotter than this I'll tell you". I don't think the Channel Seven or Channel Nine news even mentioned how hot it got out west. But it always seemed to be about ten degrees Celsius above whatever they claimed the temperature hit in the city centre.

We weren't told to stay out of the sun back then, and only weird kids had water bottles on their bike frames, but it was parentally recommended that you ride your pushie through the sprinkler a few times before you set took off on a day hot enough to make the tar road stick like toffee to your pushie's tyres.

So how different is Fucking Hot now, to back then, apart from our inability to function as a society without bottled water?

No doubt there's a fair bit of mediastyria about these days of intense heat. Records have been broken across NSW, Victoria, South Australia, we're told, the longest stretch of over 40 Celsius days ever seen, since 1939, since 1982, since whenever.

It seems so....bizarre. There are so many stories in today's papers warning us all TO STAY INSIDE. Not just kids, or the elderly. Everyone. DON'T GO OUT UNLESS YOU HAVE TO.

Have we ever been so publicly warned by premiers and health experts not leave the house? To check on elderly neighbours? To keep the kids inside? To watch for blazing trees on the horizon? But above all, to stay calm?

I'm sure there is a certain amount of exaggeration to these dire warnings, but it's clear authorities want as few people on the roads, on the trains, on the streets, as possible, in the cities and towns that will fry today and tomorrow. The less people outside in the heat, the less likely they are going to need help is the way I'm presuming they're thinking. Except for a Squishy run, I'll be sticking to that advice.

The city morgues of Melbourne and Adelaide are full, the refrigerated trucks are ready, and this weekend of 'Horror Heat' could kill another few dozen people, maybe even a few hundred if the firestorms that firefighters are now shitting themselves in expectation of come into reality sometime in the next 36 hours.

If these week and more long stretches of above 40 temperatures really are some kind of preview as to how most summers of the future will unfold - thanks to global warming, or normal (but freakish in the short term) long-term climate change cycles - then it's clear that the infrastructures of our cities and towns are not set up to take what Nature is unleashing on us.

That bitch.

Actually, the premiers of both Victoria and South Australia were heard over the past week or so stating exactly that : our public transport, our electricity grids, our city infrastructure were not built to cope with eight or twelve day long stretches of above 40 temps. I don't know how true those statements are, but its kinda unnerving to be told our cities cannot cope with what could well become a yearly reality.

If we can expect such long bursts of eyeball stinging heat to become a regular part of a Sydney, Melbourne or Adelaide summer, a few years on we'll be seeing people bailing on their easterly towns and cities for cooler climes, as some now flee the mild winters for the warmth of Darwin or Perth.

UPDATE : Weird days of a brutal summer. The lingering smoke from local bushfires drifts into the room, here at 3.26am, it's a good smell, familiar of childhood, when local bushland seemed to go up every year, but the smoke now, while light, is also heavy with the possibility of a truly terrible day ahead, if the fires spread, if the winds are worse than expected and firestorms erupt, if some insane, homicidal bastard decides to go for a bush walk with a box of matches.

It's easy enough to get sucked into the mediastyria and expect the worst, but it really does feel like some terrible things are going to happen to too many people in this country in the next two days. Here's hoping Nature surprises us again, by not following through on the threats of a deadly hot weekend.

Anyway, some hopefully helpful advice if you don't already know how to cope with the heat :

* Forget water restrictions. If you want to hose down the kids in the backyard, or fill up that abandoned wading pool, go for it. And if you can find that old lawn sprinkler in the garage, pull it out and plug it in and get under it. And don't forget the pets.

* Bailing on your un-airconditioned house for a cooler shopping mall or cinema is always an option, but consider how you and the passengers in your car will shape up if you get stuck in dead traffic, or if your car shits itself on the way there, or back. Don't expect the NRMA to be able to reach you, or that you'll be able to find water or shelter easily.

* One of the more dramatic (but realistic) warnings that have been sounded in the past couple of days about the Weekend When The Heat Wave (Supposedly) Ends reminds us that we are pretty much fending for ourselves. There aren't enough cops, fire crews, rescue crews or ambulances to cope with what could be some extremely serious heat-related chaos. Except for extreme emergencies, you and your family and your neighbours are on your own.

* A simple anti-heat solution from my own childhood - if you don't have air-con, or if the power shuts off - all you need is a fan and a spray bottle filled with water. It's amazing what a difference misting up the air in a room, or soaking down yourself, cooled only by a fan (a hand fan if neessary) can make. It's better than nothing.

* While it goes without saying you should drink plenty of water, if you're inside and sweating like Wayne Swann working a calculator, you might want to eat a couple of pieces of bread slathered with Vegemite, or eat something else salty. It'll make you feel better.

* If you're a balcony food grower like me, don't forget to move your veggies and herbs out of the full sun for the better part of the day.

* Wherever in your home the cat or dog has decided to shelter, get down there as well. Flat on your back on the floor is much cooler than standing, or even sitting.

That might be it for me this weekend. This laptop has a habit of shutting off when the temperature in here hits 35 or 36.