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Heatwaves - In My Backyard?

Heatwaves happen all over the world, in both the southern hemisphere and in the northern hemisphere.

You might have seen news reports about how a heatwave in Europe caused more than 30 000 deaths, but what about heatwaves in Australia?

Are Australians more used to the heat and better prepared for heatwaves? Do people in Australia die of extreme heat?

Heatwaves in Australia

Australia has a long history of heatwaves. The worst recorded heatwave was in 1939 when 438 people died. This heatwave affected South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales.

Heatwaves have accounted for more deaths in Australia than any other climatic event. Some of the worst heatwaves on record are below:

Ambulance officer Ambulance officer
Ambulance officer
  • January 1896 - 437 people died
  • January 1908 - 246 people died
  • February 1921 - 147 people died
  • January 1927 - 130 people died
  • January 1939 - 438 people died
  • February 1959 - 105 people died
  • January 1973 - 26 people died
  • February 1981 - 15 people died
  • February 1993 - 17 people died
  • February 2004 – 12 people died.

It’s getting hot in here!

The highest temperature in Australia was 50.7°C at Oodnadatta in South Australia in 1960.

Marble Bar in Western Australia holds the record for the longest days in a row when the temperature was above 37.8°C for 160 days in 1923-24.

The hottest day in Sydney was set in 1939 when it got to 45.3°C.

Heatwaves around the World

Heatwaves in the northern hemisphere have claimed many lives. One of the most severe heatwaves was in August 2003 when the temperature was above 40°C for two weeks. Many European countries were affected:

  • 14,802 people died in France
  • 7,000 people died in Germany
  • 4,200 lives were lost in both Spain and Italy
  • 1,300 people died from heat stress in Portugal
  • 1,400 lives in the Netherlands were lost
  • 900 people died in London.


In May 2003, peak temperatures of 45-49°C claimed over 1,600 lives throughout the country. In the state of Andhra Pradesh alone, some 1,200 people died from the heat.

In May 2006, the temperature in New Delhi climbed to 44.5°C and caused the death of 53 people. Neighbouring cities were also affected, with 27 other deaths being reported from eastern Orissa state over one weekend.

United States of America:

Heatwaves cause train tracks to bend Heatwaves cause train tracks to bend
Heatwaves cause train tracks to bend

The 1930s in America were known as the ‘Dust Bowl’ decade. Drought and numerous long heatwaves destroyed farms throughout the mid-west states, driving farmers from their land and killing nearly 15,000 people in 10 years.

In July 1901, a heatwave in the mid-west caused the loss of 9,508 lives. There have also been other major heatwaves in the Los Angeles region. These three heatwaves caused many deaths:

  • 1939 – 546 people died
  • 1955 – 946 people died
  • 1963 – 580 people died

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