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Roads Melt, Gas Evaporates In Australia's Unprecedented Heat Wave


All over Australia - Alice Springs, Adelaide, Sydney, Wagga Wagga - it's been an extremely hot summer and it's expected to get hotter. The continent is experiencing a record-breaking heat wave. Roads have melted in 108-degree temperatures in the Outback and wildfires are raging in New South Wales. The heat is so persistent that the Bureau of Meteorology added two new colors to its official maps - pink and deep purple.

Get into the purple and you could be talking 129 degrees. Joining me now from Melbourne to talk about Australia's heat wave is Karl Braganza. He's manager of climate monitoring at the bureau's national climate center. Mr. Braganza, what is the hottest that it's been there this week?

KARL BRAGANZA: The hottest temperature we recorded was on at night and that was 120 degrees.

BLOCK: 120?

BRAGANZA: That's right, 120. Actually, since the 2nd of January, somewhere in Australia, over quite a large area, actually, has recorded between 119 and 120 degrees.

BLOCK: And how unusual is that?

BRAGANZA: Typically, Australia's a bit like the U.S. There's some parts that will stay hot right throughout summer. These temperatures have basically been raging over about 1,000 kilometers. So we're talking a really large area of the continent has experienced temperatures above 102, about 70 percent of the continent.

BLOCK: This also has been going on for some time, right? This is a run of soaring temperatures that goes back to the spring.

BRAGANZA: Yeah. Look, Australia came out of, actually, quite a rainfall period over the last two years. That kind of died down in our autumn, which is March 2012. And from about June, yeah, we've had very dry conditions and record heat in the last four months of 2012.

BLOCK: And I did read that people trying to pump gasoline couldn't do it because of the extreme heat. The gas was evaporating, was vaporizing.

BRAGANZA: Yeah, there's all sorts of strange accounts from right in the interior. There are some towns in the hottest parts. Thankfully, they're sparsely populated.

BLOCK: What kinds of things are you seeing? I mean, how are people changing their routines there in Australia to beat the heat or adapt to it?

BRAGANZA: Yeah. Look, I think these days it involves staying inside. You know, air conditioning is accessible to most people, so some of the towns, like (unintelligible) which is a town in the middle of south Australia, people basically have been locking down during the day there, I think.

BLOCK: Just locking down. Just not going out.

BRAGANZA: Yeah. That's right.

BLOCK: What can you tell us about the wildfires that we mentioned? They've been called catastrophic and so intense, apparently, that they're visible from the space station. I've seen images of that.

BRAGANZA: Australia is normally fire-prone at this time of year. What we've got now is more than 100 fires burning in the southeast. Really, what we're seeing is temperatures in the record territory and it's the duration of this event combined with that flooding before that. We've basically got a really high forest flooded out there that's dried out now. So that's leading to catastrophic fire conditions when the wind is favorable.

BLOCK: So if somebody says to you, as the guy in charge of climate monitoring there, are we seeing the effects of global warming, what do you say?

BRAGANZA: Certainly, we are seeing the effects. It's not really the right question to ask, whether global warming caused this one event. The right question is, are we seeing a change in the frequency of these events as the planet warms. And that is certainly what we're seeing. Extreme heat events are becoming more frequent around the world and they're certainly becoming more frequent in Australia, particularly in the last decade or more.

BLOCK: Well, if you look at that map with these two new colors, pink and deep purple, what's the outlook going forward? Are you seeing any relief in sight or does it look like it's going to be getting hotter and hotter?

BRAGANZA: Certainly, in the interior part of the continent that heat looks like it's going to continue for the foreseeable future. We've got a tropical cyclone, what you guys call a hurricane, forming off our northwest coast. And another one may be following it in a few days' time and that is actually starting to bring some cloud across the continent.

Some of the coastal fringes and out west hopefully cooler temperatures through the next week or so. But some of those regions where the fires are already burning are predicted to be very hot, hovering around that 115, 119 mark through the next week at least.

BLOCK: Karl Braganza, thanks for talking to us about it.

BRAGANZA: No problem.

BLOCK: That's Karl Braganza with Australia's Bureau of Meteorology's National Climate Centre in Melbourne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.