Last week, we welcomed summer with a heatwave that hit parts of eastern Australia right on cue.
As extreme heat conditions are set to continue at higher temperatures and over prolonged periods, how are households in some of our most vulnerable communities coping?
It is a loaded question that researchers from RMIT University's Centre for Urban Research are setting out to answer.
The centre has launched a study, Heatwaves, Homes and Health, that aims to unpack both the experiences and risks posed to households in extreme heat conditions from a health and financial perspective.
We want to see what is happening on the ground now with households and how electricity costs are affecting how they manage their heatwave response.
"In Victoria, like other Australian states, we've had a number of heatwaves over the last decade -- a couple which have resulted in substantial loss of life. Others are surviving but are suffering health impacts," lead researcher Dr Larissa Nicholls told The Huffington Post Australia.
"At the same time, we've had a large increase in electricity prices across the country and we are in a position where energy policy is quickly changing. We want to see what is happening on the ground now with households and how electricity costs are affecting how they manage their heatwave response."
Research will be undertaken in Melbourne, Dubbo and Cairns to represent diversity across various climates and communities.
"Information around heat tends to be quite generic in Australia and therefore it may not be as appropriate for a tropical area such as Cairns," Nicholls said.
"Dubbo, as a regional area, has had some particularly hot periods. We've done some research around energy use and financial vulnerability which is also very high among a lot of people in the community."
What are the health risks?
According to Nicholls, elderly people, infants and people with chronic health conditions are most likely at risk of serious health impacts -- especially when homes and bodies are unable to cool down overnight.
"Affected people may become weak, confused, dizzy and can faint -- risking other injuries. Heat rashes or heat cramps might develop and existing medical conditions may worsen," Nicholls said.
"Heatstroke is when the body's core temperature heats up so much that internal systems shut down and delirium, seizures, coma or death may result."
And extreme heat events are responsible for more deaths than cyclones, floods and bushfires.
According to the Victorian Auditor-General's Report on heatwave management, the state's 2009 heatwave resulted in 374 excess deaths, with 167 excess deaths in 2014.
What are the financial impacts?
These risks to health and wellbeing are compounded by limited housing and financial resources.
"We know that some of these households -- particularly those that are socially or financially-disadvantaged and are often with health issues -- are living in poor-quality housing. And they have very little control over improving it," Nicholl said.
"Electricity costs may be impacting their coping strategies that they use during heatwaves as they may be reluctant to use fans or air conditioning."
And this is becoming increasingly relevant with changes to energy policy on the horizon.
It is highly likely that households will face higher prices during peak usage times. One of those times is during a heatwave.
"We are moving toward cost-reflective pricing in Australia so there will be variable prices for electricity," Nicholls said. "It is highly likely that households will face higher prices during peak usage times. One of those times is during a heatwave."
And the project aims to shed light on how the policy change may impact health and wellbeing.
"The strategy aims to make electricity bills fairer but we need to make sure energy policy and pricing considers the impact on the vulnerable during heatwaves."
The research project will survey social service and health organisations as well as households to understand their coping strategies and extent to which electricity costs may influence their willingness to use air conditioning.
The impact of public messaging
This is an area through which Nicholls hopes to achieve a widened scope.
"We don't want to promote a total reliance on air conditioning," she said. "We're interested in not only keeping low-cost ways of staying cool circulating around the community but also looking at how public messaging can become more nuanced or diversified."
Researchers are also interested in long-term planning.
"For those households that may not have access to air-conditioning, how can we make public spaces more accessible if they need to get to air-conditioned space?"
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