First Fleet weather research in the news

Published on 30 September 2010 by in News


Research into the treacherous weather conditions the First Fleet battled on the epic voyage to Australia has attracted a wealth of media attention this week.

SEARCH lead researcher Joelle Gergis spoke with a range of media about the First Fleet weather reconstruction she prepared with Rob Allan and Philip Brohan of the UK Met Office:

– Australian Geographic
– The Age and Sydney Morning Herald
– ABC News
– SBS News
– The Daily Telegraph

The reports come as a conference in New Zealand, coordinated by SEARCH research partner Andrew Lorrey, aims to promote the recovery of old weather data buried in logbooks and early weather records.

Further details of the conference and the First Fleet weather data recovery research is available in this Australian Science Media Centre online briefing.

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Protected: July project update

Published on 20 July 2010 by in Work in progress


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Salvaging sunken treasure

Published on 17 June 2010 by in News


The State Library of New South Wales has published a feature on the SEARCH project in their quarterly SL Magazine.

In the article, lead researcher Joelle Gergis describes how the project is drawing on the wealth of information available in the State Library of New South Wales’ First Fleet journals collection.

Download a PDF copy of the article here. .

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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

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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Discovering Australia’s first weather record

Published on 04 March 2010 by in Features

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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Australia’s first European settlers had good reason to complain about the weather, according to a landmark Australian climate history project. Lead academics on the SEARCH project, Dr Joelle Gergis and Prof David Karoly recently conducted an analysis of the journals of Lieutenant William Dawes, outlining temperature conditions at Sydney Harbour in the early days of the settlement.

The SEARCH team discovered that the weather experienced during the first few years of the colony were cool and wet. The colony then bore the brunt of a severe drought that began in 1791.

The findings are profiled in The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and ABC Radio.

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