Heatwave goes off scales with record 50C forecast

Australia's record heatwave, which is sparking hundreds of bush fires across the country, has forced meteorologists to redraw temperature scales and introduce new colours to their forecasting maps.

The Australian Bureau of Meteorology has extended the range on its charts from the previous cap of 50C (122F) to 54C, or more than 129F. At the same time, it has added two new colours – deep purple and pink – to show the more extreme range on its interactive weather maps. A patch of purple, indicating 50+, is now visible on one of the temperature charts for next week.

"The current heatwave, in terms of its duration, its intensity and its extent, is unprecedented," said David Jones, the bureau's climate monitoring and prediction manager. "Clearly, the climate system is responding to the background warming trend. Everything that happens in the climate system now is taking place on a planet which is a degree hotter than it used to be."

The scorching temperatures could last into the weekend and beyond, Dr Jones said, potentially breaking the all-time high of 50.7C (123.6F) set on 2 January, 1960 at Oodnadatta Airport in South Australia.

Hundreds of fires raged across southern Australia yesterday as the country sweltered in what was almost certainly its hottest day on record, although, in what one MP called "a remarkable escape", no lives were lost and relatively few properties destroyed.

Worst affected were New South Wales, where more than 130 fires were burning last night, and Tasmania, where fires flared up again, threatening seaside towns on the already hard-hit Tasman Peninsula.