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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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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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OzDocs project receives engagement award

Published on 05 October 2011 by in News

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Source: University of Melbourne, Knowledge Partnerships

The team behind the citizen science project, OzDocs, was awarded a University of Melbourne Vice Chancellor’s Staff Engagement Grant at an official ceremony on 30 September 2011.

The goal of the OzDocs project is to piece together Australian climate varitaions from the time of first European settlement until official weather records begin in 1900. As a citizen science project, OzDocs will engage volunteers from the community to explore online archives of historical documents including newspapers, explorers’ journals, artworks and farm diaries.

“This project is all about bringing the wider community and researchers together to play a part in uncovering our climate history” said Joelle Gergis the project leader. “It’s really exciting because OzDocs will be Australia’s first online database of historical climate information back to first European settlement in 1788”.

The OzDocs project is a joint venture between the SEARCH team at the University of Melbourne, the National Library of Australia, the State Library of New South Wales and the State Library of Victoria. These national and state libraries hold expansive collections that will provide the majority of the source material for the volunteers’ work.

The information collected by the OzDocs project will be used by climate scientists and historians in ongoing research. It will also be made available to the public to help people gain an insight into how Australian climate variability and extremes have influenced our society over the past 200 years.

The project will be run online allowing anyone with an internet connection to contribute. The $10,000 grant will be put towards website development costs and the live site is expected to be launched in early 2012.

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Research Trip to the State Library of NSW

Published on 29 September 2011 by in News

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Claire Fenby at work in the State Library of NSW

In late July 2011 Linden Ashcroft and Claire Fenby, two PhD students from the SEARCH team, spent three weeks delving into the rich collection of historical documents at the State Library of NSW. By the end of their research trip the pair had unearthed an abundance of valuable historical climate information that will contribute to our understanding of Australia’s recent climate history.

While at the State Library, Claire Fenby examined personal diaries, letters and journals that give first-hand accounts of weather and climate in the 1800s.

‘The country in a terrible state for want of rain, as there has been very little inland for the last year; large fields planted with grain which ought to have been green two months ago do not as yet show the slightest appearance of vegetation. Hay 14 £ per ton, cattle dying, with the other accompaniments of a long drought,’ writes George Pulteney Malcolm in his diary from 1835.

Documents like these can help to illustrate the effect of low rainfall on vegetation, crops and livestock, while also giving us an idea of the impact of dry weather on the economy. The information found in letters and diaries can also be compared to other source material, like newspaper reports, to gain a nuanced view of climate in a broad range of locations throughout New South Wales.

Tripod setup to capture high resolution images of early instrumental weather data

Linden Ashcroft’s work involves recovering and analysing early instrumental weather data from historical documents such as ship logs, observatory records, meteorological diaries and station records. The first step in this process is to track down the original sources and then produce image copies that can be used for computer based data entry.

During her visit to the State Library, Linden procured over 4500 photos of many different sources that are invaluable for her future work. These images contain temperature, pressure and rainfall data from various time periods and locations throughout the early years of European settlement.

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Image source: Tim Keegan

The severe drought that afflicted South Eastern Australia from 1997–2009 ‘Big Dry’ is likely to have been the worst since first European settlement according to a new study by climate scientists at the University of Melbourne.

The researchers used data derived from tree rings and coral records to determine that there is a 97% chance that 1998–2008 was the driest decade since 1788.  This conclusion was derived from a 206-year rainfall reconstruction, which has been accepted for publication in the US journal Climatic Change.

“This study is an example of the importance of understanding of pre-industrial climate variations unavailable from modern meteorological observations” said lead author Dr Joelle Gergis. “Our study shows that while rainfall has varied naturally over time, the recent drought may have been exacerbated by the 1oC increase in maximum temperatures observed in the south-eastern Australian region over the past 50 years’.

The rainfall reconstruction also indicates that relatively wet conditions prevailed during the first 45 years of European settlement, with a pronounced wet period centered on the 1820s – a period of rapid agricultural expansion. Evidence for this wet period was also found in historical descriptions of water level fluctuations in Lake George in the ACT, which is known to rise and fall in response to variations in rainfall.

The study is part of the South Eastern Australian Recent Climate History (SEARCH) project, run by experts in the fields of paelaoclimatology, meteorology and history. The SEARCH team is working to extend the climate record for South Eastern Australia that will help our understanding of the drivers of Australian climate and how they have changed over past centuries.

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Image courtesy of National Library of Australia

Settlements along the Clarence River in NSW were inundated with record-breaking floodwaters that claimed the lives of 9 people and caused extensive damage to riverside towns and farms in February 1863.

The flood followed 2 months of wet weather that had brought an end to a severe drought. The relief felt after the drought broke was short lived in the Grafton region as concerns grew over the saturation of the countryside throughout January and early February.

Observers noticed a rapid rise in the Clarence River on February 14th and warned others that the flood risk was high. Later that night Grafton received the heaviest rainfall of the season and flood conditions worsened. At its peak, the floodwaters rose more than 7 metres above the high water mark.

Homes, crops and livestock were lost all along the river while the small town of Tabulum suffered severely as 4 men leading drays were washed away. The rise of water was so rapid that it left a number of people trapped on roofs and in trees.

The Clarence and Richmond Examiner described the rescue efforts of 3 local men. “They swam to several persons who had been twenty-four hours clinging to trees and by means of ropes brought them to places of safety. Several lives were saved in this manner,” reported the Examiner.

Several newspaper articles describing this historic weather event were recently uncovered in the National Library of Australia’s database by Gary Cook and Ellie Brasch while volunteering for the OzDocs program.

OzDocs is currently looking for more volunteers to help search historical records and discover more information about Australia’s climate history.

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The University of Western Australia hosted a workshop last week that brought together a group of researchers who are piecing together a detailed reconstruction of Australasia’s climate over the past 2000 years.

The group, know as Aus2K, is the Australasian component of an international effort coordinated by Past Global Changes (PAGES) to reconstruct the Earth’s climate over the last 2 millennia.

The region’s leading palaeoclimatologists are using information gleaned from tree rings, coral reef samples and ice cores to uncover the region’s climate history prior to the period covered by modern weather observations.

SEARCH researchers presented a preliminary temperature reconstruction for Australia back to AD 1500 that highlights the marked late twentieth century warming. The group is now extending the analysis to develop a combined land and sea temperature reconstruction for the broader Australasia region to contribute to synthesis work currently under development for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report.

Once completed these climate reconstruction could help scientists to predict future changes in Australia’s temperature and rainfall by providing better estimates of natural climate variability needed to constrain regional model projections.

Aus2K leader Joelle Gergis recently discussed the significance of the Aus2K initiative with ABC radio’s Bush Telegraph program.

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