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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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HMS Sirius Lieutenant William Bradley recorded the daily noon temperature in his weather journal maintained over the course of the First Fleet’s journey from 1787-1788. He continued to record the noon temperature while the HMS Sirius was anchored at Port Jackson during the first eight months of the settlement of Sydney Cove.

A preview of the paper to appear in the UK journal Weather is available here

The route of this historic journey, together with the temperatures experienced by those aboard the Sirius can now be viewed in a Google Earth reconstruction, prepared by Dr Philip Brohan of the UK Met Office. This work forms part of the global effort to recover historical weather data, the Atmospheric Circulation Reconstructions over the Earth (ACRE) Initiative. Further details of Bradley’s weather record are available at OldWeather.org.

View the weather conditions of the First Fleet voyage, as animated in Google Earth (Google Earth .kmz file)

If you do not have Google Earth, download it here. whois directory

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As a young American researcher working in Australia in the late 1970s, Robert McAfee made a startling discovery that would have a huge impact on Australian Climate History research, the weather diary of Lieutenant William Dawes. This is his story.

When I was a grad student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison I received a telegram from Professor Edward Linacre of Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. To say I was stunned to receive this would be an understatement. The telegram offered me a position as a tutor in climatology in the School of Earth Sciences. I accepted this offer without hesitation.

During the next few months I completed requirements for my M.Sc. and arrived in Sydney.

Almost immediately Prof. Linacre put the idea in my head that my PhD thesis should focus on climate and history in Australia. This was very attractive to me as I enjoyed ‘digging’ around libraries and archives; it was like solving a great mystery.

My first task was to become familiar with Australian history. As an American I had no idea about the history and only a very elementary knowledge of the geography. Stereotypically my knowledge of Australia was limited to kangaroos and koalas and that classic film On the Beach. I read a number of general history texts and audited some history classes at Macquarie.

Prof. Gentilli in Perth, who was Australia’s premier climatologist made mention of some early sources, but on the whole he concluded there was little useful information for climate before about 1850. This did not discourage me, it only made me more determined.

So I began what would become nearly weekly forays to the Mitchell Library in Sydney where the historical records and archives of early Australia and New South Wales were kept. Initially I examined the published accounts of written by members of the First Fleet who arrived at Port Jackson in 1788. From these came leads to other sources, many unpublished. A great source of leads as well as data was the multivolume collection, “Historical Records of New South Wales.”

On one my expeditions of discovery to the Mitchell Library I made what I considered to be the crown jewel of my searches. While examining volumes of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society I was reading through a section called “Gifts Received”. This was a lengthy list of items donated, general a single line or two. Then an entry appeared: A Meteorological Journal at Port Jackson, 1788-1791 by Lieutenant William Dawes. I was excited beyond description. Immediately I asked one of the Librarians about the possibility that this might be in the Mitchell Library. There was an exhaustive search and it was not in the Mitchell.

Robert McAfee and David Karoly

Robert McAfee and the SEARCH Project's David Karoly

I wrote to the Royal Society in London and asked it the Meteorological journal was still in their possession. After some time I received a reply that it was there and would I like a copy. I was told it was quiet a large journal. I requested a copy and agreed to cover any costs for reproduction and postage. I received the journal compliments of the Royal Society.  This would form a very substantial foundation for a history of climate in Australia.

The great climate history mystery unfolded brilliantly and I accumulated a hundred times the ‘clues’ which I had thought possible when I began this.

In 1981 I returned to the US to write my PhD thesis which was submitted in August of that year. The thesis was the culmination of five years of exhaustive research, documentation, and putting together as comprehensive as possible a history of the climate in SE Australia.

Looking back at this period some 30 years later it still brings joy to me for the good work which was accomplished there. It was an extraordinary humbling experience to be one of the fathers of historical climatological research and discovery for Australia. It enriched and made a positive impression for the rest of my life. Now it is gratifying to see my research being put to good use to expand the Australian climate history with the University of Melbourne’s expansive research undertaking on the subject.

By Robert McAfee

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A moonbow is uncovered

Published on 23 January 2010 by in Features

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George Peacock’s hand written description of the lunar rainbow that occurred on Saturday June 9 1849 (Image: Derek Reid). Click to expand.

George Peacock’s hand written description of the lunar rainbow that occurred on Saturday June 9 1849 (Image: Derek Reid). Click to expand.

PhD student Linden Ashcroft came across a rare meteorological phenomenon when looking through some early instrumental data given to the SEARCH project by a former CSIRO scientist Derek Reid.

Derek Reid

One of the scientists who conducted pioneering research into early instrumental data in Australia was Derek Reid. Before his retirement from CSIRO in 2008, Derek conducted an extensive search into potential data sources.

He  kindly provided his findings to the SEARCH project, in the hope that we will be able to make use of them.

Included in these findings are some images of handwritten, daily weather observations taken in 1849 by observers in Port Phillip, Port Macquarie and Port Jackson (South Head). These meteorological stations were set up by the NSW Governor at the time, Sir George Gipps, and were manned by trained convicts.

George Peacock

The observer at Port Jackson, in Sydney was George Edward Peacock. An attorney, Peacock was sent to Australia in 1837 under a life sentence for forgery. While he was more famous for his oil paintings of the Sydney region, Peacock also kept the meteorological journal at South Head from June 1841 until December 1855.

The meteorological journal contains four-times daily observations of temperature and pressure, as well as daily wind direction, rainfall and general comments. One of these general comments, nestled among all the numbers, is a description of a lunar rainbow that occurred on the night of Saturday June 9 1849.

In a special note attached to the journal, Peacock obviously felt the phenomenon was worthy of particular mention. He writes:

Immediately after the moon shewed her head this night above a low bank of clouds in the eastern horizon, that rare and striking, but somewhat ominous phenomenon, a Lunar Rainbow, was presented in the western sky; the who arch was exhibited in perfect beauty; the lower extremities, particularly the Northern one, reflecting most distinctly the prismatic colors, excepting the yellow, which appeared softened into a silvery white.

The Bow remained in a perfect state for 8 or 20 minutes, then partially disappeared – again became perfect, – and thus fluctuated for about half an hour.

I have seen several lunar rainbows, but never so perfect a one as this.

Lunar rainbows, or moonbows, are rainbows caused by the refraction of moonlight through rain droplets.

Lunar rainbow are very rare as the moon has to be quite full and low, the sky needs to be dark and rain needs to be falling opposite the moon.

It seems as though conditions were perfect. The weather on the 9th, and for two days after that. was described by Peacock as “dirty…squally weather” with rain falling on the 9th, 10th and 11th.

This beautiful moment, captured in detail by Peacock, is just one striking example of the events that can and hopefully will be uncovered by searching through weather observations of the past.

The Heads of Port Jackson N.S.W. from off the North Head - a squall, 1846 painted by G. E. Peacock

The Heads of Port Jackson N.S.W. from off the North Head - a squall, 1846 painted by G. E. Peacock. Image: State Library of NSW

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