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Is the Australian Open tennis feeling the heat of climate change?

Heatwave in Australia

Frank Dancevic of Canada lies on the court after collapsing during his first round match against Benoit Paire of France as temperatures topped at 43 C (108 F) at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, January 14, 2014. Photograph: Aijaz Rahi/AP


Powered by article titled “Is the Australian Open tennis feeling the heat of climate change?” was written by Graham Readfearn, for on Thursday 16th January 2014 00.55 UTC

Did climate change conspire to burn Serbian tennis player Jelena Jankovic’s bum during this year’s Australian Open Tennis Championships?

Was global warming a conspirator in causing Canadian player Frank Dancevic to hallucinate a cartoon dog shortly before collapsing on court six?

As the Australian Open continues in Melbourne, so does the heatwave and the scorching temperatures of 41C and over.

Today will likely be the third day straight that the Olympic Park thermometer gets above 41C.  The forecast today for Melbourne is a ball-dropping 44C.

Dancevic said it was “inhumane” to ask players to continue in the relentless heat. British star Andy Murray commented it was a bad look for the sport to have ball boys and girls, players and spectators collapsing.

But does human-caused climate change have anything at all to do with the water bottle-melting heat being endured by the players?

First for the usual caveats.  Melbourne gets hot, and it has always experienced extremely hot days.

You can’t blame climate change entirely for hot weather, but you can say that it increases the risk of extreme hot weather events occurring. The planet’s atmosphere has been loaded with extra greenhouse gases, which gives the analogy of loading the weather dice to increase the chances of you rolling a six – or in this case, experiencing extremely hot days or seeing Snoopy.

Blair Trewin, a senior climatologist at the Bureau of Meteorology’s National Climate Centre, told me that over the long term, Melbourne experiences 1.3 days above 40C every year.

But he says that between 2001 and 2013, the average across all those years was 1.9 days above 40C.

“Despite what people would have you believe, 40-degree days in Melbourne are not particularly common, and the city has gone as long as five years (1968 to 1973) without having any,” he told me by email.

He says that when it comes to “single day extremes” there is a clear increase for the south east of the country, although it is much harder to see any trends in heatwaves.

Dr Sarah Perkins is a researcher at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science at the University of New South Wales and specialises in studying heatwaves.

I asked her if human-caused climate change was contributing to charred bums and Snoopy sightings at the tennis.

“It’s contributing,” she says. “In Melbourne we are seeing an increase in the amount of extreme heat – there’s a disproportionate change when compared to the 1C increase we’ve seen in the average temperature for Australia.

“We are also seeing an increase in heatwaves not just in Melbourne, but across Australia.

“Of course, summer is naturally hot and extreme temperature events will occur at this time of year. But we’re now seeing much more of these events, that last longer, and are hotter. It’s this trend that’s concerning.

“Because of the background warming that’s already there, there is a greater risk now of us seeing these events happen – so in that respect, it’s game, set and match.

“Perhaps the bums wouldn’t have been charred quite so much if there was no background warming trend”.

She says her studies have shown that since 1980, Melbourne is now experiencing an average of between one and two extra “heatwave days” every year. A heatwave day is a day that can contribute to a string of hot days.

While an extra day or two doesn’t sound like much, Perkins says the average heatwave days per year before 1980 was only between five and six.

Perkins also says there are generally three natural climate phenomena related to extreme heat in the south east of the country.

None of these three “modes”– El Nino, the Indian Ocean Dipole and the Southern Annular Mode – were currently in cycles associated with higher extreme temperatures, says Perkins.


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