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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SEARCH volunteers unearth vital climate data

Published on 23 September 2010 by in News


An end to the drought. Excerpt from the Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, Thursday 13 June 1839 (Click to enlarge)

A team of volunteers at the State Library of New South Wales has been hard at work sourcing valuable information about climate conditions in the early years of the colony at Sydney.

The volunteers have been examining editions of Australia’s first newspaper, The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, looking for information about weather conditions in the colony during 1838 and 1839, which have been identified as drought years.

The volunteers have unearthed many meteorological tables from each month of the target years, as well as stories about how the weather affected the colony.

This very useful material will allow the project team to reconstruct the weather conditions during the period.

The team has been conducting their research using the National Library of Australia’s Trove Australian Newspapers database. Trove is an important project to digitise Australia’s early newspapers from 1803 to the mid 1950s.

If you would like to be involved as a volunteer, please contact the SEARCH team on info@climatehistory.com.au.

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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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Black Thursday. Image: State Library of Victoria

Black Thursday. Image: State Library of Victoria

The SEARCH project will draw on the expertise of volunteers to build a comprehensive online database of early Australian meteorological records and historical accounts of weather events.

Volunteers will work out of our partner libraries, The State Library of Victoria, The State Library of New South Wales and the National Library of Australia to help us populate the SEARCH Project’s OzDocs Database with this valuable information about South-East Australia’s climate past.

This citizen science project will see our volunteers scouring historical documents such as early settlers’ diaries, the colony’s first newspapers and Government Gazettes, for evidence of significant weather events.

This data will help us piece together details of our climate history, allowing the SEARCH team to view our current climate patterns in the context of natural historical variability.

The OzDocs project is currently in pilot stage. If you would like to contribute as a volunteer, please sign up for a user account, or contact the project team at info@climatehistory.com.au for further information.

The Atmospheric Circulation Reconstructions over the Earth (ACRE) project is undertaking a similar climate history citizen science project, spearheaded by SEARCH project partner researcher Dr Rob Allen from the UK Met Office.

A volunteer team in Adelaide is looking at the early South Australian weather records of Charles Todd, who kept meticulous weather data from Adelaide between the 1870s to the early 1900s.

The ACRE project was recently profiled on the ABC’s Stateline.

One of the most successful citizen science projects is Galaxy Zoo, an online astronomy project that enlists the general public to assist with the classification of millions of galaxies from telescopic images.

Lucas Laurson’s article in Science from June 25 2010 also profiles various research organisations undertaking citizen science projects.

The Journal of Arthur Bowes-Smyth, State Library of New South Wales

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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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Protected: Project Update

Published on 02 March 2010 by in Work in progress


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