For the first time, the century-old agency’s forecast map now includes a gauge for temperatures up to 54° Celsius (129.2° Fahrenheit), complete with new colors – deep purple and hot pink – to indicate areas experiencing heat above 50°C (122°F).
Though Australia’s existing heat record, set in 1960, still stands for the moment, officials believe it may soon be surpassed. The nation’s Bureau of Meteorology has been open about the impact that rising greenhouse gases are already having there: The agency’s website declares that Australia is “experiencing rapid climate change,” including more frequent heat waves and changing rainfall patterns.
The current heat wave has produced above-average temperatures for 80 percent of the country – the nationwide average on Monday was 104 degrees Fahrenheit – and scores of wildfires. The state of New South Wales, home to Australia’s most populous city, Sydney, is facing its greatest fire danger ever, officials say. In some areas of the state, the official fire danger rating is “catastrophic.”
Nor are heat waves and wildfires Australia’s only climate woes. Decades of drought are causing the salination of groundwater in the nation’s prime agricultural region; warming and acidifying oceans are killing the Great Barrier Reef; and extreme storms are increasing. As Rolling Stone‘s Jeff Goodell reported in 2011, the tendency of climate change to “amplify existing climate signals” means that already extreme places like Australia will be the first to experience the kind of major impacts that could be in store for the rest of the world. “Australia is the canary in the coal mine,” said David Karoly, a climate researcher at the University of Melbourne, in that story. “What is happening in Australia now is similar to what we can expect to see in other places in the future.”