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As polar vortex grips US, Australians endure perilous heatwave

A lone tree stands near a water trough in a drought-effected paddock on Jimmie and May McKeown's property located on the outskirts of town of Walgett, in New South Wales, Australia
A lone tree stands near a water trough in a drought-effected paddock on Jimmie and May McKeown's property located on the outskirts of town of Walgett, in New South Wales, Australia REUTERS/File Photo

It's blowing hot and cold out there. While the polar vortex has plunged much of North America into a deep freeze, an extreme heatwave south of the equator has been rewriting the record books.

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Australia was officially the hottest place on earth this month, with intense temperatures leading to bushfires, ongoing drought and the countless destruction of wildlife. Fish are being killed en masse in a mismanaged river system in drought-hit south-eastern Australia, and wild horses are dying of thirst. This comes after heat stress saw a third of the country’s local bat population drop dead from the trees in just two days.

Contrast this with the mind-boggling cold that’s descended on the US, shutting down parts of the Midwest. News reports say Americans awoke Wednesday morning to “relentless, bone-deep freeze”. Schools have been closed and flights cancelled in what’s described as “life-threatening” cold air.

A pedestrian stops to take a photo by Chicago River, as bitter cold phenomenon called the polar vortex has descended on much of the central and eastern United States, in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., January 29, 2019.
A pedestrian stops to take a photo by Chicago River, as bitter cold phenomenon called the polar vortex has descended on much of the central and eastern United States, in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., January 29, 2019. REUTERS/Pinar Istek

It’s particularly brutal in Chicago, where temperatures are at their slowest since 1985. It was -29C at 7am, with residents being warned that frigid temperatures risk causing frostbite within minutes.

The extreme weather has offered President Donald Trump another opportunity to debunk global warming. “People can’t last outside even for minutes,” he tweeted. “What the hell is going on with Global Waming[sic]? Please come back fast, we need you!”

The experts were quick to remind Trump that “climate” and “weather” are very different, and that tough winters are not evidence against climate change. One meteorologist at the US National Weather Service was categorical: “Climate change does not eliminate winter.”

There are calls from Australians on social media for Trump to be forced to spend a week Down Under every time he pokes fun at climate change. Even in the shade it’s stinking hot in much of Oz – and although relief is forecast for next month, the more humid weather that’s typical of February could ensure more uncomfortable days to come.

A pan with frying eggs is seen on a pavement during a heatwave in Adelaide, Australia, January 24, 2019 in this picture grab obtained from social media video.
A pan with frying eggs is seen on a pavement during a heatwave in Adelaide, Australia, January 24, 2019 in this picture grab obtained from social media video. JAMES H BEAN/via REUTERS

It’s been so hot in Australia this week that scorching temperatures have caused a heatwave over in New Zealand. Hot air from the Aussie outback travelling across the Tasman Sea has reached the east coast of New Zealand, cranking up the mercury on both the north and south islands.

The Tasman can usually be relied upon to cool warm masses of air sweeping towards New Zealand. This year, though, it appears a marine heatwave that’s caused sea-surface temperatures to spike by 4 degrees has limited the Tasman’s ability to act as an air-conditioner.

Australians are no strangers to toasty temps, and the summer sizzle itself has been getting a roasting on social media. One bloke in Adelaide – which broke its all-time heat record this week at 46.6C – posted a video of himself frying eggs on fiery hot paving stones. (I’ll admit to having successfully done something similar with eggs on the boot of my Dad’s car in the Nineties).

Elsewhere online, there are pictures of dogs wearing custom-made shoes to protect their feet from the blistering pavements.

When it’s too hot for a barbecue, Aussies have no trouble finding creative ways of dealing with the heat.

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