It’s no secret that our planet’s climate is steadily warming, leading to a greater likelihood of extreme weather events such as heatwaves. However, predicting exactly how and when these deadly events will occur is difficult.
That’s where Dr Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick comes in. Her work at UNSW’s Climate Change Research Centre aims to understand everything about heatwaves – from how they looked in the past, to how they’ve changed in the present and, most importantly, how often they’ll strike in the future.
Heatwaves, which are basically sustained periods of unusually warm weather, can have catastrophic consequences.
They already kill more people worldwide than any other natural disaster, causing tens of thousands of deaths from dehydration each year. And a 2013 study found that heat-related deaths are likely to quadruple by 2050.
While the elderly and sick are particularly vulnerable, they’re not the only ones at risk. Increased periods of intense heat also cause sea ice to melt faster, power supplies to fail, train tracks to buckle, bushfire risk to soar, and increased wildlife deaths.
“Anything over 42 degrees Celsius causes fruit bats to literally drop out of trees,” Perkins-Kirkpatrick explains.
“Heatwaves affect everyone. We need to better understand them so people can prepare for the increase in these extreme events that’s coming as a result of climate change.”
Part of Perkins-Kirkpatrick’s research involves looking at the data to try and untangle and measure for the first time all the complex factors that influence heatwaves.
“A lot of people think it’s just hot weather, but my research shows it’s also linked to soil moisture levels, and certain weather patterns, such as, whether we’re in El Niño or La Niña,” she explains. “Now we’re also looking at how all those factors line up on top of human-caused climate change.”
She’s combining this information with historical heatwave records, and analysing state-of-the-art climate models to understand possible future changes. She’s already shown that heatwaves today are worse than they would have been if we’d never had the industrial revolution. And they’re only slated to get more intense.
“Humans have caused more heatwaves, it’s certain, we can already detect it,” says Perkins-Kirkpatrick. “But if we can work out the complex relationships involved, then we could find a better way to predict these events and their severity, and help people prepare better.”
Perkins-Kirkpatrick was driven to research by her natural curiosity combined with the desire to help people, and in the future she hopes her research might encourage society to save lives by taking action against climate change.
“If I ever answer all the questions we have about heatwaves, then I’ll move onto researching another extreme event,” she says. “What I always dreamed about was finding a ‘cure’ for climate change. I want to do something that will put me out of a job.”