The relative value of sociocultural and infrastructural adaptations to heat in a very hot climate in northern Australia: a case time series of heat-associated mortality

Lancet Planet Health. 2023 Aug;7(8):e684-e693. doi: 10.1016/S2542-5196(23)00138-9.


Background: Climate change is increasing heat-associated mortality particularly in hotter parts of the world. The Northern Territory is a large and sparsely populated peri-equatorial state in Australia. The Northern Territory has the highest proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia (31%), most of whom live in remote communities of over 65 Aboriginal Nations defined by ancient social, cultural, and linguistic heritage. The remainder non-Indigenous population lives mostly within the two urban centres (Darwin in the Top End region and Alice Springs in the Centre region of the Northern Territory). Here we aim to compare non-Indigenous (eg, high income) and Indigenous societies in a tropical environment and explore the relative importance of physiological, sociocultural, and technological and infrastructural adaptations to heat.

Methods: In this case time series, we matched temperature at the time of death using a modified distributed lag non-linear model for all deaths in the Northern Territory, Australia, from Jan 1, 1980, to Dec 31, 2019. Data on deaths came from the national registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages. Cases were excluded if location or date of death were not recorded or if the person was a non-resident. Daily maximum and minimum temperature were measured and recorded by the Bureau of Meteorology. Hot weather was defined as mean temperature greater than 35°C over a 3-day lag. Socioeconomic status as indicated by Index of Relative Socioeconomic Disadvantage was mapped from location at death.

Findings: During the study period, 34 782 deaths were recorded; after exclusions 31 800 deaths were included in statistical analysis (15 801 Aboriginal and 15 999 non-Indigenous). There was no apparent reduction in heat susceptibility despite infrastructural and technological improvements for the majority non-Indigenous population over the study period with no heat-associated mortality in the first two decades (1980-99; relative risk 1·00 [95% CI 0·87-1·15]) compared with the second two decades (2000-19; 1·14 [1·01-1·29]). Despite marked socioeconomic inequity, Aboriginal people are not more susceptible to heat mortality (1·05, [0·95-1·18]) than non-Indigenous people (1·18 [1·06-1·29]).

Interpretation: It is widely believed that technological and infrastructural adaptations are crucial in preparing for hotter climates; however, this study suggests that social and cultural adaptations to increasing hot weather are potentially powerful mechanisms for protecting human health. Although cool shelters are essential during extreme heat, research is required to determine whether excessive exposure to air-conditioned spaces might impair physiological acclimatisation to the prevailing environment. Understanding sociocultural practices from past and ancient societies provides insight into non-technological adaptation opportunities that are protective of health.

Funding: None.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acclimatization*
  • Australia / epidemiology
  • Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples*
  • Climate
  • Hot Temperature*
  • Humans
  • Indigenous Peoples
  • Northern Territory
  • Time Factors