CANBERRA, Australia – Bats are dropping from trees, kangaroos are collapsing in the Outback and gardens are turning brown. While North America freezes under record polar temperatures, the southern hemisphere is experiencing the opposite extreme as heat records are being set in Australia after the hottest year ever.
Weather forecasters in Australia said some parts of the sparsely populated Pilbara region along the rugged northwest coast on Thursday were approaching 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit). The record high of 50.7 degrees Celsius (123.3 F) was set in 1960 in Oodnadatta, South Australia state.
Outback resident Gian Tate, 60, spends much of the day soaking in a small wading pool at her home near Emu Creek in the Pilbara region, a remote area off the electric grid. The thermometer outside her home registered 50 degrees Celsius (122 F) on Wednesday, she said. Tate and her husband rely on two electric fans to cope with the oven-like heat and rarely turn on the small air conditioner in their bedroom because of the high cost of fuel to run their generator.
"We've just got to live with it; there's nothing you can do," she said.
Brazil is also sizzling, with the heat index reaching 49 degrees Celsius (120 F). Zookeepers in Rio de Janeiro were giving animals ice pops to beat the heat.
The late arrival of the monsoon in northern Australia, which has a cooling effect, is contributing to the searing heat, said Karly Braganza, the manager of climate monitoring at the Bureau of Meteorology. Global warming also is playing a role, he said.
So far, this year's heat wave, which started around Christmas and has moved counterclockwise across Australia's north, is not as extensive or prolonged as last year's. But it would likely continue and move toward South Australia state, Braganza predicted.
"Certainly looking at the forecast over the next week, it's looking like that heat is going to continue," he said.
Since Dec. 27, records have been set at 34 locations across Australia — some by large margins — where temperature data has been collected for at least 40 years mostly in Queensland and New South Wales states. In the mining town of Narrabi in New South Wales, the new record of 47.8 degrees Celsius (118 F) exceeded the previous record by 3.6 degrees Celsius (6.5 F)
The extreme temperatures come on the heels of Australia's hottest year on record, beating the previous record year of 2005, with mean temperatures 1.2 degrees Celsius (2.2 F) above the 1961-90 average.
Meanwhile, a deep freeze gripping large swathes of the United States started to ease slightly after low temperature records were shattered in numerous locations. In Atlanta, the mercury fell to minus 14 degrees Celsius (6 F), and at Washington Dulles International airport it sank to minus 17 degrees Celsius (1 F), eclipsing the 1988 mark of minus 13 degrees Celsius (8 F).
The heat wave in Australia has taken a toll on wildlife, too.
In Winton, famous for being one of the hottest spots in Queensland and also the place where Australia's unofficial anthem "Waltzing Matilda" was penned, a "large number" of parrots, kangaroos and emus have recently been found dead in the parched landscape, said Tom Upton, chief executive of Winton Shire Council.
"That's as much to do with the extended dry as it is with the heat wave," he said.
At least 50,000 bats had been killed by the heat in the state's southeast, said Louise Saunders, president of the Queensland animal welfare group Bat Conservation and Rescue.
Heat-stressed bats — including the Black Flying Foxes, Little Red Flying Foxes and the endangered Gray-Headed Flying Foxes — cling to trees and urinate on themselves in a bid to reduce their body temperatures, she said.
"As they succumb, they just fall in heaps at the base of trees," Saunders said. "You can have 250 or more — it's like dripping chocolate — all dying at the base of trees."
"It's an enormous animal welfare concern," she added.
At Emu Creek, Tate says the leaves have gone brown in her garden, despite watering. The heat keeps her awake at night.
It also makes her husband's job of hunting kangaroos at night easier because they gather around wells that provide water for cattle. (Kangaroo meat is sold to consumers in Australia.)
"You don't have to hunt them," she said. "Every single kangaroo at night time would be around the water."