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Saturnia feeds on Eucalyptus Sydney by John William Lewin. Image: State Library of New South Wales

With south-eastern Australia in the midst of wet La Niña conditions and Victoria suffering locust plagues, a team of SEARCH project volunteers has discovered early settlers battled many of the same extremes.

This heavy rainfall has created perfect conditions for insects such as the locusts that are currently swarming in south-eastern Australia.

Australia’s early settlers also battled plagues of insects and extreme weather, according to accounts from the country’s first newspaper, The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser.

A team of volunteers at the State Library of New South Wales has been hard at work extracting weather-related articles from the newspaper, along with meteorological readings from the early years of the colony at New South Wales.

These documentary accounts are being used by the SEARCH research team to help extend South Eastern Australia’s climate record back to 1788.

Volunteer, Gary Cook, who alone has contributed more than 300 articles to the SEARCH project’s OzDocs volunteer database, recently discovered a report of a destructive caterpillar plague that hit Sydney on St Patrick’s Day, 1825.

The research team’s preliminary rainfall reconstruction for the period indicates that 1825 was likely to have been a wet year.

Orgyier Ocks by John William Lewin. Image: State Library of New South Wales

The Sydney Gazette noted that the destructive caterpillar plague hit the settlement after a period of heavy rains, causing widespread crop damage.

“… Since the present enchanting fine weather has again set in, the number of these destructive insects has increased to an unparalleled extent, covering whole fields in their course, which in some spots seemed to be towards the South, in a line from East to West.

Wherever they make their appearance, the most complete destruction immediately follows. Upon Captain Campbell’s estate, in the district of Cooke, they were supposed to be at least two inches in height.”

The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 24 March 1825

Australia is presently feeling the effects of a moderate-to-strong La Niña event, which the Bureau of Meteorology forecasts will continue into early 2011, bringing wet conditions to much of the south-east.

The Sydney volunteers have also uncovered accounts of storms that caused shipwrecks and heavy rains that flooded the streets of Sydney.

Volunteer, Ellie Brasch, discovered reports of a unique atmospheric phenomenon, a “peculiar white mist” in Sydney; the refracted light causing an illusion on the horizon line looking out to sea.

“… this line of mist ascended to a position above the horizon, its inferior surface being at one time about a ship’s mast in elevation above it, and forming there a mirror as it were, in which were distinctly visible reflections of three vessels which were going away to the eastward in full sail ; these images reflected on the mist, appeared of course inverted – the hulls upwards.”

The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 3 October 1840.

The OzDocs volunteer project is proving to be hugely beneficial to SEARCH’s research. A wealth of climate information is hidden in the pages of Australia’s first newspapers. Library volunteers are already making this valuable resource much more accessible, by identifying and collating articles of interest to the project.

Thanks to the National Library of Australia’s Trove online newspapers, volunteers can work easily from home or from libraries.

To take part as a volunteer on SEARCH project, please contact the project team, or see our Get Involved page.

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One Response to “Volunteers dig up tales of wild weather and insect plagues”

  1. free domains says:

    [...] 2011 volunteers from the OzDocs project discovered devastating locust plagues, sweeping floods, burning heat waves and snow falling in Sydney during colonial times. The launch [...]