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Ashcroft and Claire Fenby, two PhD students from the SEARCH team, spent three weeks delving into the rich collection of historical documents at the State Library of NSW.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.
Linden Ashcroft’s work involves recovering and analysing early instrumental weather data from historical documents such as ship logs, observatory records, meteorological diaries and station records.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.