Letter | Published:

Australian climate extremes at 1.5 °C and 2 °C of global warming

Nature Climate Change volume 7, pages 412416 (2017) | Download Citation


To avoid more severe impacts from climate change, there is international agreement to strive to limit warming to below 1.5 °C. However, there is a lack of literature assessing climate change at 1.5 °C and the potential benefits in terms of reduced frequency of extreme events1,2,3. Here, we demonstrate that existing model simulations provide a basis for rapid and rigorous analysis of the effects of different levels of warming on large-scale climate extremes, using Australia as a case study. We show that limiting warming to 1.5 °C, relative to 2 °C, would perceptibly reduce the frequency of extreme heat events in Australia. The Australian continent experiences a variety of high-impact climate extremes that result in loss of life, and economic and environmental damage. Events similar to the record-hot summer of 2012–2013 and warm seas associated with bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef in 2016 would be substantially less likely, by about 25% in both cases, if warming is kept to lower levels. The benefits of limiting warming on hydrometeorological extremes are less clear. This study provides a framework for analysing climate extremes at 1.5 °C global warming.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.


  1. 1.

    1.5 °C and climate research after the Paris Agreement. Nat. Clim. Change 6, 222–224 (2016).

  2. 2.

    et al. Realizing the impacts of a 1.5 °C warmer world. Nat. Clim. Change 6, 735–737 (2016).

  3. 3.

    The maximum climate ambition needs a firm research backing. Nature 537, 585–586 (2016).

  4. 4.

    , , , & Allowable CO2 emissions based on regional and impact-related climate targets. Nature 529, 477–483 (2016).

  5. 5.

    et al. Differential climate impacts for policy-relevant limits to global warming: the case of 1.5 °C and 2 °C. Earth Syst. Dyn. 7, 327–351 (2016).

  6. 6.

    , & An overview of CMIP5 and the experiment design. Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 93, 485–98 (2012).

  7. 7.

    , & Human contribution to the European heatwave of 2003. Nature 432, 610–614 (2004).

  8. 8.

    , & Explaining extreme events of 2011 from a climate perspective. Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 93, 1041–1067 (2012).

  9. 9.

    & Anthropogenic contributions to Australia’s record summer temperatures of 2013. Geophys. Res. Lett. 40, 3705–3709 (2013).

  10. 10.

    & Are estimates of anthropogenic and natural influences on Australia’s extreme 2010–2012 rainfall model-dependent? Clim. Dynam. 45, 679–695 (2014).

  11. 11.

    , & Global increase in record-breaking monthly-mean temperatures. Climatic Change 118, 771–782 (2013).

  12. 12.

    , & Future risk of record-breaking summer temperatures and its mitigation. Climatic Change (2016).

  13. 13.

    et al. Global warming and recurrent mass bleaching of corals. Nature 543, 373–377 (2017).

  14. 14.

    et al. The impact of global warming on the tropical Pacific Ocean and El Niño. Nat. Geosci. 3, 391–397 (2010).

  15. 15.

    & A new approach to detection of anthropogenic temperature changes in the Australian region. Meteorol. Atmos. Phys. 89, 57–67 (2005).

  16. 16.

    The changing nature of Australian droughts. Climatic Change 63, 323–336 (2004).

  17. 17.

    , , & Climate Change turns Australia’s 2013 Big Dry into a year of record-breaking heat. Bull. Amer. Meteorol. Soc. 95, S41–S45 (2014).

  18. 18.

    et al. Limited evidence of anthropogenic influence on the 2011–12 extreme rainfall over Southeast Australia. Bull. Amer. Meteorol. Soc. 94, S55–S58 (2013).

  19. 19.

    Increasing drought under global warming in observations and models. Nat. Clim. Change 3, 52–58 (2013).

  20. 20.

    IPCC Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation (eds Field, C. B. et al.) (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2012).

  21. 21.

    et al. Science and policy characteristics of the Paris Agreement temperature goal. Nat. Clim. Change 6, 827–835 (2016).

  22. 22.

    , , & Quantifying uncertainties in global and regional temperature change using an ensemble of observational estimates: The HadCRUT4 data set. J. Geophys. Res. 117, D08101 (2012).

  23. 23.

    , & High-quality spatial climate data-sets for Australia. Aust. Meteorol. Ocean J. 58, 233–248 (2009).

  24. 24.

    et al. Extended reconstructed sea surface temperature version 4 (ERSST.v4): Part I. Upgrades and intercomparisons. J. Clim. 28, 911–930 (2015).

  25. 25.

    et al. Extended reconstructed sea surface temperature version 4 (ERSST.v4): Part II. Parametric and structural uncertainty estimations. J. Clim. 28, 931–951 (2015).

  26. 26.

    et al. Further exploring and quantifying uncertainties for Extended Reconstructed Sea Surface Temperature (ERSST) version 4 (v4). J. Clim. 29, 3119–3142 (2016).

  27. 27.

    , , & A scientific critique of the two-degree climate change target. Nat. Geosci. 9, 13–19 (2015).

  28. 28.

    , & Improved pattern scaling approaches for the use in climate impact studies. Geophys. Res. Lett. 42, 3486–3494 (2015).

  29. 29.

    et al. Emergence of heat extremes attributable to anthropogenic influences. Geophys. Res. Lett. 43, 3438–3443 (2016).

  30. 30.

    et al. Global analyses of sea surface temperature, sea ice, and night marine air temperature since the late nineteenth century. J. Geophys. Res. 108, 4407 (2003).

Download references


We acknowledge the support of the NCI facility in Australia and we acknowledge the World Climate Research Programme’s Working Group on Coupled Modelling, which is responsible for CMIP, and we thank the climate modelling groups for producing and making available their model output. For CMIP the US Department of Energy’s Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison provides coordinating support and led development of software infrastructure in partnership with the Global Organization for Earth System Science Portals. We thank the Bureau of Meteorology, the Bureau of Rural Sciences and CSIRO for providing the Australian Water Availability Project data. A.D.K. and D.J.K. are funded through the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science (CE110001028). B.J.H. is funded through an Australian Research Council Linkage Project (LP150100062).

Author information


  1. ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science, School of Earth Sciences, University of Melbourne, Melbourne 3010, Australia

    • Andrew D. King
    • , David J. Karoly
    •  & Benjamin J. Henley


  1. Search for Andrew D. King in:

  2. Search for David J. Karoly in:

  3. Search for Benjamin J. Henley in:


A.D.K. conceived the study and performed the analysis. All authors developed the methodology, discussed the results, and contributed to the preparation of the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Andrew D. King.

Supplementary information

PDF files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Information

About this article

Publication history






Further reading