Case study: Impacts and adaptation response of infrastructure and communities to heatwaves: the southern Australian experience of 2009


Jim Reeves, Colleen Foelz and Peter Grace (Institute for Sustainable Resources, Queensland University of Technology); Peter Best, Torben Marcussen, Shahbaz Mushtaq and Roger Stone, (Australian Centre for Sustainable Catchments, University of Southern Queensland); Margaret Loughnan (School of Geography and Environmental Science, Monash University); Darryn McEvoy, Ifte Ahmed and Jane Mullett (Climate Change Adaptation Program, RMIT University); Katharine Haynes, Deanne Bird, Lucinda Coates and Megan Ling (Risk Frontiers, Macquarie University).

Summary of the Project

The goal of the study is to detail the impact, vulnerability, and adaptation responses to the heatwave of 2009 at state and sub-regional/local government levels in southern Australian with an emphasis on Victoria and South Australia. The heatwave that gripped southern Australia in the summer of 2009 brought unprecedented temperatures for prolonged periods of time and provided the Australian public with an unexpected and timely snapshot of the future. Whilst the extended duration and intensity of these high temperatures were predicted in short term weather forecasts, state and local governments were ill prepared. The multi-state heatwave induced increased power failures and load shedding with subsequent downstream impacts on transport infrastructure in the greater Melbourne area. The study also focuses on the already stressed utilities in this region and related infrastructure and the community, including emergency management and human health. Interviews and surveys will determine what adaptation mechanisms were in place prior to the event, how successful they were and what changes have been made. The project includes a detailed assessment of the climate event in the context of available records and indicators; an impact, vulnerability and adaptation assessment, including an analysis of the adaptive capacity of the region and post-event adaptation responses/measures; and direct stakeholder engagement through interviews and workshops.

Aim and Objectives of the Project

  • A detailed analysis of the climate event itself, including the timing, geography, underlying weather patterns and potential links to regional circulation; recent contextualization of the event, and potential for similar events in the future.
  • A quantitative impact assessment, outlining the overall loss of capacity, services, productivity and human impacts across sectors and geographic regions.
  • A vulnerability assessment, outlining which sectors, communities, occupations, and people were particularly vulnerable (i.e., lacked adaptive capacity) to the onset and duration of the heatwave and the reasons underlying these vulnerabilities.
  • An assessment of adaptation responses across sectors and regions, including the mode, management and effectiveness of the response, including communication and risk management mechanisms. The overarching role of the emergency and associated services will be assessed and the efficacy of current government arrangements in responding to the heatwave.
  • An evaluation of existing government (policy and procedures), institutional and community mechanisms and overall preparedness of the public and private sector to respond.
  • Specific examples of resilience across sectors, communities, occupations and people (i.e. those who possessed adaptive capacity) during the course of this event, and the specific responses and reasoning behind these responses.
  • Analysis of government (especially at the local level), and community responses after the heatwave in developing better adaptation mechanisms, including policy, procedures and infrastructure.
  • Analysis of barriers to adaptation and increasing resilience to climate change across sectors, sub-regions and communities and outline potential mechanisms for overcoming these barriers.
  • Articulation of the lessons learnt within sectors, sub-regions and communities.
  • Definition of suggested further research to enhance adaptive capacity and promote and enhance engagement of government, communities and sectors in adapting to climate change.

The study does not include an assessment of the 2009 (Black Saturday) bushfire event in Victoria.


  1. Literature summary and statistical analysis of currently available climate data for southern Australia (Victoria and South Australia) looking at the exceptional properties of the 2009 heatwave, specifically:
    • Comparison of the characteristics of the 2009 heatwave to those in recent years (1975-), with respect to the duration, intensity and characteristics that affect human response (e.g. availability of night-time temperature cooling, seabreeze penetration, thunderstorm activity, air quality).
    • Predictability (short-term, seasonal indicators) of heatwave onset, duration, end, and intensity and the influence of the urban heat island effects.
    • Spatial extent of the event and relationship to location of major infrastructure and communities.
    • Analysis of potential frequency of similar heatwave events into the future based on current GCM output.
  2. Literature and stakeholder interview analysis of climate impacts and adaptation responses with respect to infrastructure and community, specifically:
    • A review of available information in relation to heatwave-related mortality and morbidity in southern Australia – including a review of the Risk Frontiers database.
    • Analyse trends in mortality/morbidity/vulnerability data for these events, including hospital admissions.
    • Internal heat accumulation in buildings (and the effects on energy demand and risk management, human heat stress and the use of adaptation measures such as air-conditioning, change in behaviour and community support mechanisms)
    • Direct impacts and responses with respect to transport operations and facilities (e.g. disruptions due to track buckling, driver heat stress, communications).
    • Adaptation and post-event responses of utilities, health institutions and agencies, emergency services and the insurance industry.
  3. Stakeholder feedback and analysis, specifically:
    • Targeted workshop activities in both Melbourne and Adelaide to report on outcome of literature analysis and responses to preliminary report.

 Listen to the ABC PM report on the case study - New study warns governments about heatwave impact 

Visit the publications page to download the full report and key findings



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