Two hundred years of Australian climate history revealed

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 melancholy loss of H.M.S Sirius off Norfolk Island March 19th 1790, by George Raper. Credit The National Library of Australia.
The melancholy loss of H.M.S Sirius off Norfolk Island March 19th 1790, by George Raper. Credit The National Library of Australia.

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

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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