The bizarre, apocalyptic effects of Australia’s extreme heat

Thirsty guy.
Thirsty guy.
Image: Oakbank Balhannah CFS via AP
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It’s just the beginning of Australia’s summer, and the heat has already been breaking records. On Dec. 18, temperatures rose to a national average of 40.9°C (105.6°F)—and it doesn’t look like the heat will relent anytime soon.

There are some predictable effects for extreme heat, such as drought, the increased frequency of wildfires, and poor air quality. And such heat is, of course, dangerous for humans, who risk heat stroke and dehydration.

But there are also other effects on animals and the environment that are already proving surprising. This is likely a sign of things to come, as researchers anticipate that climate change will make extremely hot periods like this one more common in Australia.

Koalas are dehydrated. The animals, of which there are only an estimated 100,000 left, live in what are now some of the hottest parts of the country. They consume water by eating leaves. As Fast Company reports, one effect of climate change is that those leaves now contain less water than they used to. Some koalas have reportedly come up to humans to drink water out of a bottle. Others have been trapped in habitats that have been subject to wildfires and have had to be treated for burns on their fur and paws.

Cows can no longer mate. In the Sydney Morning Herald, veterinarian Gundi Rhoades details the effects of extreme heat she has seen on the cattle industry in New South Wales. “They are becoming infertile from their testicles overheating. Mares are not falling pregnant, and through the heat, piglets and calves are aborting,” she writes.

Large numbers of wild animals are dying off. An incomplete list of animals that have died en masse in recent years: bats, fish, and horses. Many more were killed on purpose—after 90 feral horses were found dead next to a water source that had dried up, another 50 horses were so dehydrated that they were considered too weak to be relocated and had to be killed. Ranchers in western Australia shot at least 2,500 camels that, according to NPR, “threatened to drain ranchers’ [water] reserves for cattle.”

Birds are grounded. A garden designer told the New York Times earlier this month that he saw lots of birds seeking shade under trees instead of their typical position perched atop them. “I’ve been walking around the parklands, turning on the taps at the bottom of the trees. [The birds] with their beaks open, [were] all gasping for air,” he said.

Tropical fish are exploring new coasts. Last year, the Queensland grouper, which usually lives in the coral reefs off the coast of Australia’s northeast state, was seen off the uncharacteristically warm coast of New Zealand, 3,000 km (1,800 miles) away.

Fruit is baking on trees. It’s likely not surprising that crops aren’t doing well in the extreme heat. But earlier this year, Kris Werner, head of Dried Tree Fruits Australia, told ABC that his peaches and nectarines have been cooking on the tree branches where they grew.

A strange hot ocean blob appeared. Among the least explained phenomena is a patch of warm water, 1.5 times the size of Texas, that has appeared off the southeast coast of New Zealand. Researchers aren’t quite sure how it formed and what its effect is, according to the Guardian, but they suspect it’s a natural variation that hasn’t been dispersed because there hasn’t been much wind.

A man cooked pork in his car. Stu Pengelly, a resident of Perth, noticed that temperatures would get real hot in his Datsun Sunny. So he put a piece of pork on a pan on the seat of the car. Over the next 10 hours he monitored the temperature, which reached 81°C (178°F). “My warning is do not leave anyone or anything precious to you in a hot car, not for a minute,” he wrote on Facebook.