New research launched to combat Oz heat waves

Universities and other stakeholders launch a million-dollar research project to reduce heat stress in Australian cities

Australia heatwave
Australia experiences some of the world's worst heat waves and to help mitigate its effects the University of South Australia is leading a research initiative studying the microclimates of Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. Image: ABC News

The University of South Australia (UniSA) on Thursday unveiled its plans for a research initiative studying urban microclimates in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide amounting to $1.2 million. 

The three-year project, to be started in September, is the first time Australia will have a research initiative of this scale that also combines UniSA’s efforts with the University of New South Wales and the University of Melbourne.

Together, the project aims to reduce the heat stress afflicting Australia’s three key cities by providing research and analysis that will assist city governments in formulating better policies regarding urban planning and environmental management. 

According to Steffen Lehman, project leader and director of UniSA’s Centre for Sustainable Design and Behaviour (sd+b), “We want to develop a cross-disciplinary, multi-scale understanding of Australian cities’ microclimates, by focusing on what is known as the Urban Heat Island (UHI) effect and the interplay between urban form, density, materials, surfaces and ambient temperature.” 

Urban heat island effect is defined by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as “built up areas that are hotter than nearby rural areas.” And by ‘hotter’, the agency means that for a city with one million people, the annual mean air temperature can be one to three degrees Celsius warmer than its surroundings and even higher in the evening.

The built up heat can therefore affect energy demands and energy costs, air pollution, water quality, greenhouse gas emissions, and also lead to heat-related illnesses, or in some cases, mortality. 

Lehman says, “Heat waves can and do kill and as the planet warms we are going to experience more of the same.”

The research initiative is of vital importance for Australia’s cities and the environment. The country is known for its record-breaking heat waves.

According to UniSA, in Sydney’s central business district in particular, urban heat island spots have a range of 45 to 60°C in surface temperature, which is the alarming end of the spectrum.   

“We need to ask what happens in public spaces when older people and young children are not able to go out because of the heat,” Lehman points out. “How do we build cities that mitigate heat stress and the storage of heat?”

City of Adelaide Lord Mayor Stephen Yarwood has a similar perspective. He says, “While there is a considerable body of international UHI research, this project will apply that knowledge to Australian cities and their particular issues, comparing the built environment in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide.” 

“The resulting analysis of the architectural, precinct and city scales will support decision making, urban planning and environmental management in line with the sd+b centre’s aim to reduce Australia’s carbon footprint,” Lehman explains. 

Concerned businesses like international steel supplier BlueScope Steel and leading international design firm Hassell Architects are also joining in the efforts.

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