Concerns for life in Western Australia’s Pilbara after 50.7C heat record matche

15 01 2022 | 11:32 Royce Kurmelovs

The heatwave sweeping the vast region prompts calls for authorities to consider how to make it more sustainable

The Bureau of Meteorology is working to verify readings showing the northern Western Australia town of Onslow has matched the record for the hottest day in Australia, prompting calls to make living with extreme heatwaves in the Pilbara more sustainable.

According to the bureau’s records, Oodnadatta in South Australia’s outback experienced the hottest day ever in 2 January 1960 with a reading of 50.7C. On Thursday, the coastal town of Onslow, 1,386km north of Perth and home to 848 residents, matched that.

Nearby towns of Roebourne and Mardie also sweltered through the heatwave, with automatic weather stations recording temperatures of 50.5C – matching the hottest day ever recorded in Western Australia and breaking a new record for the second hottest day recorded nationally.

Last year’s hottest place was Mardie, with a reading of 47.9C. On Friday, Onslow again simmered, hitting 48C, meaning the day2 temperature was hotter than anywhere else in the country during 2021.

Temperatures of 40C were felt from Fitzroy Crossing in the southern Kimberley and down to Norseman in the southern Goldfields.

Temperatures were not expected to get as high on Friday, but Onslow recorded a temperature of 48C just after midday.

Despite experiencing 50C on Thursday, Roebourne locals were unfazed by the extreme weather.

Michael Woodley, the CEO of the Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation and a resident of the 630-person town, said it was “just another day in the Pilbara”.

Woodley said people were pragmatic about the near-record-breaking day and looked to beat the heat however they could. Those who had air conditioning spent the day inside, while those without were forced to venture out to find some shade and keep cool with a garden sprinkler – or at the local pool.

“People don’t really think about it. People here just know one day is hotter than the next, but I think it’s something people should be a bit more aware of now with climate change,” Woodley said. “If 50C becomes the norm, there’ll be serious problems, obviously.”

He said that given the records, he hoped authorities would now consider what was needed to make living in the Pilbara sustainable, particularly as it was home to many First Nations people.

Last year was the world’s fifth-hottest year on record, according to preliminary readings, and was likely the hottest recorded year with a La Niña event in the Pacific.

La Niña years are characterised by the Pacific Ocean absorbing more heat than in a neutral year.

The Macquarie University deputy vice-chancellor and member of the Climate Council, Prof Lesley Hughes, said temperature spikes during heatwaves showed the danger of climate change because “life isn’t lived on an average”.

“Averages are useful because we can compare averages between years or averages between decades, but what averages hide is a whole world of pain,” Hughes said.

“Along with those averages are the extremes, and it’s with the extremes we actually get the impact. Averages don’t usually kill. It’s the extremes that do the harm.”

Heatwaves can be deadly when people are caught outside in high temperatures and quickly become dehydrated, leading to a surge in hospitalisations and even deaths. Extreme heat can cause heatstroke and exhaustion, but also strokes and heart attacks in more serious cases.

Hughes said extreme heat puts stress on multiple functions of the body and can become lethal when core temperatures are pushed “outside a narrow band of safety”.

This risk grows higher as heatwaves drag out over multiple days and overnight temperatures remain high, making it difficult for people to cool down.

The high temperatures raised concerns about vulnerable people across the region, including 169 prisoners held at Roebourne prison on Thursday whose cells were not equipped with air conditioning.

A spokesperson for the WA Department of Justice said cell temperatures were monitored throughout the day and prisoners were provided with fans and ice, but cells with air conditioning were limited and had to be reserved for those with medical conditions.

“The department employs a number of effective controls to manage the heat risk across the state,” the spokesperson said. “At Roebourne, this includes fans in every cell, air conditioning in the recreation hall, shade structures in the main areas of the prison and a flexible routine to adjust to the Pilbara’s heat conditions.”

The spokesperson said medical staff were continuing to monitor prisoners’ health and safety on Friday but did not respond to questions about whether air conditioning would become the norm due to hotter temperatures.

cover photo: The Pilbara region in Western Australia has experienced an extreme heatwave, prompting calls to make living in it more sustainable. Photograph: Oliver Strewe/Getty Images