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Flooded street in Maitland, 1864. Image courtesy of National Library of Australia.

A La Niña event spanning 1860–1864 brought repeated widespread flooding to settlements across NSW. This succession of natural disasters demoralised rural communities and devastated agricultural endeavors.

The floods in 1863 and 1864 were the most severe with much of the New England and Hunter Valley regions inundated with floodwaters.

‘We have [Casino] been visited by the largest flood ever witnessed by white men… The water rose at a rapid rate – the last twelve hours two feet an hour… I believe that is ten or twelve feet higher than the largest ever seen,’ reported a correspondent for Clarence and Richmond Examiner and New England Advertiser after heavy rain fell in February 1863. Similar stories were reported for Grafton, Armidale and settlements along the Bremer and Brisbane rivers.

This spate of wet weather in 1863 put a strain on the newly founded trade route between the Clarence Valley and Queensland.

‘The first visit of the “Grafton” to Brisbane could not have happened at a time more prejudicial to opening a trade between Queensland and the Clarence… The district was suffering from the ravages of the most extraordinary flood with which we have ever been visited, and unfortunately the floods have been succeeded by such continuous wet weather, that the producers of the district, have been so thoroughly dispirited that they have been unable even to make the best of the circumstances, through which they have been passing,’ claimed the Clarence and Richmond Examiner.

The district again endured extensive flooding the following year in 1864 along with towns further south including Tamworth and Maitland.

‘This part of the country [Tamworth] has been visited with one of those awful floods, with which the colony is sometimes afflicted, attended with a loss of life and property which will bring utter ruin to many and sadness and sorrow to all,’ reported a correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald.

With houses completely submerged, Tamworth residents rallied to rescue their stranded neighbours.

‘Pattison with the assistance of everyone who could render it, set to work, and made and launched a tolerable boat , with oars complete, in little more than an hour…The force of the current was, however, too great. The boat was dashed against a stump, upset and sank. Firth swam to the nearest tree where he remained the night. Pattison took shelter on a house-top, and Dalton struck boldly out for the shore which he reached in a very exhausted state, cheered by an assembled multitude,’ recounted the Herald’s correspondent.

Palaeoclimate evidence indicates that the La Niña event associated with this string of wet years began in 1860, temporarily weakened in 1862 and then switched to an El Niño event in 1864. To add to the tribulations of the settlers, the onset of this El Niño event brought drought conditions that lasted from mid-1964 through to late 1866.

The newspaper articles detailing the flooding were discovered by Gary Cook while working as a volunteer on the citizen science project OzDocs. The project is currently looking for more volunteers to help search historical records and uncover further information about Australia’s climate history.

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1863: Bushfires Ravage Gippsland

Published on 13 September 2012 by in News

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Artwork by John Longstaff depicting a fire in the Gippsland region. Image courtesy the State Library of Victoria

In February 1863, bushfires swept through the Gippsland region destroying farm lands and burgeoning townships. The fires were so fierce and extensive that observers dubbed it Black Monday comparing the severity of the event to the infamous Black Thursday fires 12 years earlier.

‘The Backwater, near Sale, reserved for a town commonage, and which was the only refuge of the poor starved, and scorched beasts of the surrounding district, became on Monday one fierce, crackling, raging, burning furnace. Trees of immense size were soon burned to the ground, and the smoke and heat became so oppressive, that it was the nearest approach to “Black Thursday” which we have experienced in the colony,’ reported the Gippsland Times.

The fires took off during a heat wave with recorded temperatures of 103 degrees Fahrenheit (39 degrees Celsius). Locals claimed the temperature reached 60 degrees Celsius in areas exposed to the sun.

The Gippsland Times reporter observed numerous tree stumps combusting simultaneously and struggled to explain this phenomenon. ‘In fact there is something about bush fires still unexplained, and we are rather inclined to believe that electrical or some other unexplained cause produces effects which we can hardly attribute to a small spark,’ said the reporter. Evidently it was hard for new settlers to grasp the immense heat that a bushfire front produces.

The agricultural sector was hit hard by the fires which wiped out the pastoral feed for cattle in the region. Pastoralists rushed to offload their marketable cattle to buyers in Tasmania or New Zealand before they lost too much weight. Losses ran into the thousands of pounds which could be equivalent to over a million dollars by todays standards. Luckily the bulk of grain in the region was spared having been harvested prior to the fires.

Gary Cook recently discovered the article detailing the 1863 fire while working as a volunteer on the citizen science project OzDocs. The project is currently looking for more volunteers to help search historical records and uncover further information about Australia’s climate history.

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1860: Summer Storm Floods Melbourne

Published on 30 August 2012 by in News

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Flooding in Elizabeth St in 1862

Flooding in Elizabeth Street in 1862. Image courtesy of National Library of Australia

In December 1860, at the peak of the Victorian gold mining boom, a severe storm hit Melbourne and unleashed a deluge that swamped the central business district. Arriving just two weeks before Christmas, the floodwaters swept through downtown Melbourne leaving a trail of destruction in their wake.

“The immense mass and force of the water in various parts may be imagined from the fact, that the streets in many places were completely torn up, the water washing away the whole of the earth, and leaving merely the bluestone metal underneath. At the foot of Elizabeth-street, near the railway station, the metal itself seems to have been torn away, for large holes are left in all directions,” reported The Argus.

The Argus stated that the downpour started at midnight on Saturday (8 December 1860) and continued unabated for nearly 24 hours. This heavy rain created a torrent of water running along the foot of Elizabeth St that swept away a pedestrian trying to make their way across.

“One old man was carried off his legs by the flood, but was rescued by a cabman, who boldly drove to his rescue and succeeded in snatching him from a watery grave, but lost his horse, and wrecked his cab in the attempt,” reported the Portland Guardian and Normanby General Advertiser.

The flood struck Melbourne at a time when the burgeoning city was undergoing rapid expansion thanks to the Victorian gold fields. The population had grown from 70 000 to half a million people over the previous ten years. Melbourne residents witnessed two more major floods in quick succession (1862 and 1863) that were immortalised in iconic photos (above and below).

Gary Cook recently discovered the articles detailing the 1860 flood while working as a volunteer on the citizen science project OzDocs. The project is currently looking for more volunteers to help search historical records and uncover further information about Australia’s climate history

Flooding in Melbourne in 1863

Flooding in Melbourne in 1863. Image courtesy of National Library of Australia

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Public sermons to stop the rain, thermometers kept in pubs and forest giants in Tasmania have all helped to improve our understanding of south-eastern Australia’s climate history, according to a recent public talk at the State library of Victoria.

On 2 August, around 80 people attended the public talk that was the culmination of a three-year project run by the South Eastern Australian Recent Climate History (SEARCH) team at the University Of Melbourne. This interdisciplinary project brought together climate scientists, historians and meteorologists in a unique study that sheds light on the climate in south-eastern Australia since 1788.

‘When we experience extreme weather in Australia, people will often ask “Is this normal?” The only way to answer that question is by looking to the past. If we uncover what our climate was like in the past then can we judge the significance of what we are seeing today,’ said project leader Joelle Gergis.’As Winston Churchill famously said, “the further back you look, the further forward you can see”.’

The presentation included descriptions of the weather conditions experienced by the First Fleet, rainfall patterns in New South Wales extending back to 1783 and a 200-year history of water flowing through the River Murray. The rainfall reconstruction, based on natural indicators such as tree rings and coral samples, indicated that the recent drought between 1998–2008 was the worst since European settlement.

Early instrumental records of temperature and rainfall were presented, including temperature observations taken by one of Melbourne’s first settlers, John Pascoe Fawkner. Fakwner kept a thermometer in a cool, dark room in 1835–1836, most likely the cellar of his hotel. Other early weather records showed extreme events including heavy rainfall in Sydney in 1841 and 1844, and extremely hot conditions across Victoria on Black Thursday, 6 February 1851.

Historians on the project also discussed how the early settlers handled the extremes of the south-eastern Australian climate, and how the climate may have shaped early colonisation. Strategies included building grain silos into the stone on Cockatoo Island in Sydney to store wheat for future droughts, continually moving stock to new pasture, and importing food from other countries. Settlers also turned to the church in times of drought or during floods, as many people felt the weather was a kind of punishment rather than a natural part of the Australian landscape.

The SEARCH team have also invited members of the public to get involved by signing up for their citizen science project, OzDocs. OzDocs volunteers help to recover valuable documentary and instrumental records from online archives. People can find out more about OzDocs by visiting the website http://ozdocs.climatehistory.com.au.

The SEARCH project was supported by an ARC linkage grant and a number of partner organisations including the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, Murray-Darling Basin Authority, Victorian Department of Sustainability, Melbourne Water, NIWA (NZ), Met Office (UK), National Library of Australia, State Library of NSW, State Library of Victoria, National and State Libraries Australasia, Powerhouse Museum, and Monash University.

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OzDocs logoThe team behind the groundbreaking citizen science project, OzDocs, recently launched a new version of the volunteer website marking a rapid expansion in the scope of the project.

In 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 of the new website in 2012 will accommodate a far greater number of volunteers who will continue to recover Australia’s climate history at an unprecedented rate.

The launch of the new volunteer website was covered in the mainstream media by The Age newspaper, ABC radio, and blogs. This coverage led to a large spike in recruitment with 55 new volunteers signing up in the following month. Together with established volunteers, they rescued 391 historical weather accounts bringing the total number up to an impressive 4,172.

The OzDocs project was primarily founded to help bridge the gap between climate scientists and members of the wider community.

“An important part of this project is to help the community understand the difference between natural climate variability and how industrially-driven climate change since the 1950s is amplifying our already extreme climate in ways not experienced in the past,” said project leader Dr Joelle Gergis.

The information recovered by volunteers will be used to enrich landmark academic studies that are extending the climate record in Australia. This sets up an extraordinary opportunity to involve the broader community in writing our nation’s climate history.

You can learn more and sign up to become an OzDocs volunteer by visiting www.ozdocs.climatehistory.com.au

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1836: Snow in Sydney

Published on 06 December 2011 by in News

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Meteorological table published in The Sydney Herald, 30 June 1836

The burgeoning colony of Sydney was blanketed with up to an inch of snow on a bitterly cold morning in June 1836. This historic event was recently uncovered in a newspaper archive by a volunteer from the citizen science project, OzDocs.

‘About seven o’clock in the morning a drifting fall covered the streets, nearly an inch in depth… a razor-keen wind from the west blew pretty strongly at the time and altogether, it was the most English like winter morning … ever experienced,’ reported The Sydney Herald.

The meteorological table in The Sydney Herald recorded that on the morning of the snow (June 28, 1836) the temperature had dropped to a frosty 3 degrees Celsius (38°F). According to The Monitor newspaper the snow disrupted trading in the colony with vendors unable to transport their goods to the markets.

The surprised colony members were reported to have made light of the unusual occurrence. ‘Some of the “Old hands” express a hope that their old acquaintances, Messrs. Frost and Snow do not intend emigrating to New South Wales,’ reported The Sydney Herald.

Gary Cook, an OzDocs volunteer, discovered the first of the newspaper articles describing the historic weather event in the National Library of Australia’s TROVE database. OzDocs is currently looking for more volunteers to help search historical records and uncover further information about Australia’s climate history.

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