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Wellington harbour at dawn. Photo: Getty Images
Wellington harbour at dawn. Photo: Getty Images

SocietyDecember 14, 2017

Scorching Bay: Why this heatwave is making Wellingtonians a little loopy

Wellington harbour at dawn. Photo: Getty Images
Wellington harbour at dawn. Photo: Getty Images

‘The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in Wellington,’ Mark Twain almost said (the apocryphal saying is actually about San Francisco, close enough). But not this year. The city is basking in a long stretch of hot weather – and some residents are not coping.

Something strange is going on in Wellington. The heatwave. The heatwave that never ends. Such a phenomenon is highly unusual for late November and December here – heck, last year there was virtually no summer – but what’s stranger is how it’s affecting us. We’re used to wearing three layers, carrying a beanie and puffer jacket everywhere, and clinging to lamp-posts to stay upright during the strongest southerlies (once – no joke – I saw a woman blown off her feet and knocked out when she hit the pavement). Now a singlet and shorts suffice.

We Wellingtonians pride ourselves on our hardiness in cold weather, but when it comes to hot weather, some of us just can’t deal. On December 7, sweat patches stained office shirts across the region as temperatures reached 27.3°C in the central city suburb of Kelburn and 31.4°C in Lower Hutt. Some places may have reached 33°C. It’s not as hot a week on, but still hot. The wind usually stops it being too humid here, but there’s been next to no wind. “It’s not natural,” a friend told me. “Not in Wellington.”

Technically, it’s not an official “heatwave”. Lisa Murray, the MetService’s communications meteorologist (yes, that’s really her job title), says a heatwave is when five days or more in a row are all five degrees warmer than average. “We’d need to hit 23.6°C for that. We’ve hit that four days in a row, but not five. So not quite a heatwave, but definitely unusual heat.”

Consequently, we’re behaving strangely. For starters, we’ve been talking to each other more, as you do when you have the same common enemy. A year ago, it was Trump’s election then the earthquakes and continued aftershocks. Now it’s the heatwave. We’re clustering around the office watercooler to talk about the weather, and asking strangers at cafes and in queues how they’re holding up in the heat. We’re turning anything at hand – advertising flyers, bank statements, magazines – into fans. We’re swimming in the sea (before you scoff, Aucklanders, I dare you to try it in Wellington’s normal ‘summers’). We’re making sandwiches for dinner because it’s too darn hot to cook. It’s almost too hot to – dare I say it – drink coffee. My barista says takings are down. Drinking my flat white on a leather chair, I worried that when I stood up, there’d be a sound like velcro ripping as my bare legs detached themselves.

Later that day, I was walking past a car dealership, attempting to fan myself with my notebook, when two salesmen passed me complaining about the heat. “I vote we all strip off and serve customers in our underwear,” one said. “Heck, we might make a few more sales.” Not a bad marketing ploy for summer, guys.

Hot man, summer in the city. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

In Cuba Mall, my inveterate eavesdropping continued. It was my duty to interrupt a conversation that two ridiculously good-looking Germans were having about moving here. “You know the weather’s not usually like this, right?” They stared, then laughed. “Really?” one of them asked. Yes, really. I wasn’t trying to persuade them not to move here – I bloody love Wellington – but I couldn’t let them labour under any climate misconceptions. My husband’s aunt moved to Wales after visiting on its one fine day that year. Yes, she regretted it.

With the annual ‘festival of eating’ at my mum’s place looming between Christmas and New Year’s, I’ve been trying to get to the gym more. It’s at the end of my street, but I’ve only made it a couple of times recently. Despite the valiant attempts of several large pedestal fans, it’s less gym, more sauna – and pretty much empty. The Warehouse actually nearly sold out of fans, which aren’t usually such a big-seller in Wellington

On Tuesday – a “Mummy” day with my three-year-old – I attempted to do some Christmas shopping. Fellow shoppers looked dazed by the sun. Desiccated, even. The iceblock was the fashion accessory of choice. I’m usually out and about a lot, but I just wanted to go home where our heat pump was flexing its under-used fan function. I lay enervated on the couch playing ‘Tiger With A Problem’ (essentially, the adult doesn’t have to move) as my son, wearing only a singlet and nappy, tried to fan me with an actual fan, but kept accidentally hitting my nose. He looked over at our rapidly browning Christmas tree, and voiced a concern. “Will Santa still come if he’s too hot in his red suit?” I pulled out his A Kiwi Night Before Christmas book where Santa is wearing a singlet and stubbies.

Reassured, he did some paintings to turn into Christmas cards and, as I squeezed out the last of the pink paint, I squirted it all down my dress. My dress came off and so did the stain, but it was so hot I forgot I was wandering round in underwear next to floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook the street. Unfortunately, just as I realised, I made eye contact with two students drinking beer outside their flat across the road. Sorry, guys.

I considered heading to the closest public swimming pool, but heard reports that the crowds there were as thick as at the All Whites-vs-Peru game. Instead we went to the supermarket to buy water balloons, where I considered laying down in the chilled room where they keep the beer. Back home, I had fresh veg ready for a Chinese stir-fry, but I hadn’t thought it through properly. We had pizza for dinner, because that way I didn’t need to stand next to a source of heat. That night, I slept in my underwear without even a sheet on, and my son woke up several times to say he was hot. Other friends are finding it hard to sleep.

“My son is beside himself,” a friend tells me. “He doesn’t even want to go outside because the grass is brown and that seems unnatural. I keep on having to have discussions with him about how yes, this is probably climate change, and no, we can’t really do anything to make it rain, but we should enjoy the sunshine while it lasts. He keeps on saying ‘I can’t wait for winter’.”

Mainly, the heatwave bothers me because it’s a constant reminder that climate change isn’t just on its way. It’s here. Average temperatures in the Wellington region are predicted to rise three degrees by 2090. I’ll hopefully be 110 by then, but my son may still be around. I keep thinking about our Pacific neighbours as the heatwave goes on. And on.

Wellington Water is nervous. By late November, water demand had reached levels normally only seen in February or March. As I write this, they warn we’re on the cusp of a water shortage. Some restrictions are in place, including a ban on sprinklers, and their #watcheverydrop campaign includes tips like recycling water from the shower and kitchen sink. Er, can we just have really short cold showers?

Wellington is closing in on a 70-year-old record for the longest period without rain. Just as I typed those words, I looked out the window – it was starting to drizzle. I went outside five minutes later; the rain was gone, and it was still one-layer weather.

Murray says that, after a slightly cooler “reprieve” on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday this week, temperatures will head back up to 24 degrees. How is the usually pessimistic MetService coping with providing so much sunny news? “Last year, we had people ringing up asking when summer would start,” Murray says. It never did. “This year, the phones went dead for a few days, then people started ringing asking ‘Where’s the wind? How long will this last?’ People seem a little unsettled.”

Can Wellingtonians cope? Can the pest-control companies cope with all the rat-infestation callouts? Good weather sees rats multiply, but I reckon fewer babies than normal will be born in nine months. It’s too hot for that.

The cynic in me is convinced we’ll pay for this in winter 2018. The weather gods are lulling us into complacency and, come July, we’ll be traversing Cuba Mall on snow skis.

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