Australia has been suffering its worst heat wave on record, the first time temperatures exceeded 110 degrees Fahrenheit for three days running. It’s been so hot that on Thursday, the low at Melbourne airport was 87 °F.

Australia is the canary in the coal mine for climate-driven desertification. The astonishing decade-long drought in southern Australia was declared ‘worst on record’ last year. The U.K.’s Independent notes:

Australia, the driest inhabited continent on earth, is regarded as highly vulnerable. A study by the country’s blue-chip Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation identified its ecosystems as “potentially the most fragile” on earth in the face of the threat.

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Australia is but the first and most seriously impacted of the arid sub-tropical (and near-sub-tropical) climates that are facing horrific desertification from climate change. For instance, Lester Snow, director of California’s Department of Water Resources said Friday:

We may be at the start of the worst California drought in modern history.

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Two years ago, Science ($ub. req’d) published research that “predicted a permanent drought by 2050 throughout the Southwest” — levels of aridity comparable to the 1930s Dust Bowl would stretch from Kansas to California. The U.K.’s Hadley Center warned in November 2006 that their research predicted multiple permanent Dust Bowls around the planet on our current emissions path:

Extreme drought is likely to increase from under 3% of the globe today to 30% by 2100 — areas affected by severe drought could see a five-fold increase from 8% to 40%.

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Extreme drought means desertification, especially if it lasts for hundreds of years, as the recent NOAA-led study found (see here). The regions that NOAA identifies as facing permanent Dust Bowls:

  • U.S. Southwest
  • Southeast Asia
  • Eastern South America
  • Southern Europe
  • Southern Africa
  • Northern Africa
  • Western Australia

Again, since Western Australia is the most sensitive, since Australia is already the driest of the habitable continents, it’s no surprise that Australia is the first to see such climate-change-driven decadal drought:

Most of the south of the country is gripped by unprecedented 12-year drought. The Australian Alps have had their driest three years ever, and the water from the vast Murray-Darling river system now fails to reach the sea 40 per cent of the time. Harvests have fallen sharply.

It will get worse as global warming increases. Even modest temperature rises, now seen as unavoidable, are expected to increase drought by 70 per cent in New South Wales, cut Melbourne’s water supplies by more than a third, and dry up the Murray-Darling system by another 25 per cent.

When you throw a brutal heat wave on top of the desertification, then all hell breaks loose:

Ministers are blaming the heat — which follows a record drought — on global warming. Experts worry that Australia, which emits more carbon dioxide per head than any nation on earth, may also be the first to implode under the impact of climate change.

At times last week it seemed as if that was happening already. Chaos ruled in Melbourne on Friday after an electricity substation exploded, shutting down the city’s entire train service, trapping people in lifts, and blocking roads as traffic lights failed. Half a million homes and businesses were blacked out, and patients were turned away from hospitals.

More than 20 people have died from the heat, mainly in Adelaide. Trees in Melbourne’s parks are dropping leaves to survive, and residents at one of the city’s nursing homes have started putting their clothes in the freezer.

“All of this is consistent with climate change, and with what scientists told us would happen,” said climate change minister Penny Wong.

As an aside, I wonder when the United States will get a Department of Climate Change. Probably not for a decade or more, until we are hit by an extended Australian-scale drought somewhere along with one or more of the other near-term climate Pearl Harbors?

AFP’s story’s calls this “once-in-a-century heatwave that has claimed dozens of lives and sparked wildfires.” But, in fact, Professor David Karoly, of the University of Melbourne, said last week: “The heat is unusual, but it will become much more like the normal experience in 10 to 20 years.”

Part 2 will look at the potentially record-breaking drought starting to grip California.

Part 3 will explain the science behind climate change driven desertification and the spread of the subtropics.

One final (very) small point. We already saw Tiger Woods win the “Hottest Major of All Time” and the parched “brown British Open.”

But this Australian open is going to go down as the hottest tennis major of all time (so far):

Earlier in the week, as the historic heat took grip, men’s champion Novak Djokovic sensationally pulled out of his Australian Open quarter final with heat-related problems, the first defending champion to withdraw in the Open era.

Three-time champion Serena Williams, who will take on Russia’s Dinara Safina in Saturday’s women’s final, described playing as an “out-of-body” experience before the roof of the Rod Laver Arena was closed and a row over the Australian Open heat policy ensued.

In the future, more and more major sporting events will have to be moved away from the summer and perhaps, like the Super Bowl, actually be held in the winter (if not indoors where possible).

Of course, if we really turn one third of the planet into permanent desert by century’s end — and raise global temperatures an average of 10 degrees, with sea levels 5 feet higher and rising 10 inches a decade, I wonder just how much interest will remain in such “nonessential” activities like professional sports.

This post was created for, a project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.