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Observing Australia's weather

Climate is the typical weather conditions experienced at any location or area. Understanding climate and seasonal outlooks in Australia by European scientists has been based on extensive observations.

Maatsuyker Island Light House weather observations are done four times daily, image by Gill and Keith Chapman, courtesy of Lighthouses of Australia.

Indigenous people's knowledge about the weather, and their descriptions of the seasons and climatic conditions is recognised today in work with scientists and the Australian Bureau of Meteorology (BOM).

Indigenous seasonal calendars

Indigenous Australians have long had their own seasonal calendars, which are different from the seasonal calendar brought to Australia by the British in 1788. Aboriginal people lived in Australia for at least 50,000 years and during this time developed a unique body of knowledge which enabled them to survive across a range of climatic zones and experiences, sometimes in incredibly adverse conditions.

During this time, great changes occurred in weather patterns and climate. The most significant event was an ice age which arrived about 20,000 years ago and lasted for some 5,000 years, during which time the average temperatures fell by some 10 degrees, rainfall decreased, and cold, dry winds blew across the land.

Human responses to long-term climate change as evidenced by longest trail of ancient human footprints, Willandra Lakes, Lake Mungo, courtesy of Visit Mungo

Lake Mungo is a potential treasure trove of information about the earliest settlement of the Australian continent and is renowned as the location of the world's oldest known ritual burials and the longest known trail of ancient human footprints. However, surprisingly little is known about the lives of the people who have inhabited this area for more than 45,000 years.
Dr Nicola Stern, Latrobe University, Human responses to long-term landscape and climate change in the Willandra Lakes World Heritage Area

These stories of the ice age are reflected in stories told today by Indigenous people in Australia including the Bibbulman in south-west Western Australia, the Yolngu in Kakadu, Northern Territory, and the Palwa people of Tasmania and south-eastern Australia.

An intimate knowledge of plant and animal life held by Indigenous people has been gained from millenia of observations, This knowledge, especially as it relates to the inter-connections of subtle natural linkages, can reveal much about climate and weather. An example of Indigenous knowledge predicting seasonal calendars comes from Yarralin in the Northern Territory

Flying foxes move from the inland bush to the rivers during the dry season and nest in the pandanus palm trees. When this happens the onset of rains is imminent

Molly Yawulminy hunting for Long-necked turtle, Daly River, courtesy of Australian Geographic in CSIRO.

In Kakadu, a scientist might observe the seasonal timing of the flowering of eucalyptus and spear grass in terms of ‘falling humidity associated with the beginning of the Dry Season triggers the flowering response'. Another coincidental observation about when the dry season will arrive in Kakadu is provided in the educated understanding held by local Gagadju people

the flowering of the rough barked gum and the bunch spear grass is a sign that the winds will soon blow from the southeast and the Dry Season will arrive.

Understanding these barometers in the natural world gives Indigenous people the ability to predict seasonal events based on an intimate understanding of the reaction of local plants and animals to gauge what is happening in the environment.

Tasmanian Forests, courtesy of University of Tasmania.

As a result of all this, seasonal cycles as described by the various Aboriginal peoples differ substantially according to location. Whereas in the cool temperate zone of north east Tasmania, there are only three seasons: Wegtellanyta (December to April), Tunna (May to August) and Pawenya (September to November); there can be as many as six seasons in the tropical zones. For example, the Jawoyn, from the Northern Territory, recognise six seasons.

Early European observations of Australia's local climate

Climate is the typical weather conditions experienced at any location or area. Understanding climate and seasonal outlooks in Australia by European scientists has been based on extensive observations.

Meteorological records at Sydney Cove, Parramatta and Observatory Hill

William Dawes who commenced regular observations of the weather at Sydney Cove in 1788.

European weather records were begun by Lieutenant William Dawes who built a small observatory at Dawes Point, Sydney Cove and commenced regular observations in September 1788. (McAfee 1981) Dawes made readings with great dedication, sometimes as many as six times a day, until December 1791 when he returned prematurely to England, ‘having incurred the displeasure of the Governor for his refusal to participate in reprisal raids against the Aborigines'.

Worogan from Sydney (an informant to Dawes), who married Yeranibe, and together sailed on the Lady Nelson to Jervis Bay in 1801, engraving by Barthelemy Roger after Petit, published in Peron, 1811, courtesy of State Library of New South Wales.

Meteorological observations did not begin again until the arrival of the soldier-scientist, Sir Thomas Brisbane, as Governor. Brisbane established an observatory at Parramatta where records were maintained from 1822 until 1826. The next period of observations was from 1832 to 1848, with an observatory maintained by the retired Admiral Phillip Parker King.

However, in 1858 continuous observations recommenced at the newly constructed Sydney Observatory on what is now known as Observatory Hill. Meteorological observations were also commenced at other locations in New South Wales, including at Port Macquarie (1840), and in Adelaide (1839), Brisbane (1840), Hobart (1841), Melbourne (1856) and Perth (1876).
Bureau of Meteorology, A hundred years of science and service. 2001, p.2

Early extreme weather occurrences

Approaching thunderstorm, courtesy of Bureau of Meteorology, Observing Thunderstorms Handbook

Early observers, beginning with the First Fleet, noted the violent squalls and storms that swept in from the Southern Ocean . The ferocity of the southerly storms later led to shipwrecks littered across the southern coastline.

Extremely dry conditions in the early years were a foretaste of the droughts to come later. The breaking flooding rains that we now know as El Niño and the Southern Oscillation wrought great hardship on the early settlers and established, in prose and verse, the enduring images of the Australian bush.

Meteorological stations – from lighthouses to telegraph stations

Norfolk Island Meteorological Office, with a weather RADAR on the roof, courtesy of Bureau of Meteorology

In 1854, Georg von Neumayer, a Bavarian Ship's Officer with a doctorate, convinced of the importance of meteorology, obtained the instruments necessary to establish an observatory in Melbourne. Initially working as a private citizen, he established a number of observing stations throughout Victoria, mainly at lighthouses. In 1859, he was appointed as Government Astronomer. The observational role of lighthouses in reporting weather data continues to this day, much of it collected by volunteers.

With the building of the Overland Telegraph in 1855, Charles Todd, aged 30, as Superintendent of Telegraphs, established meteorological stations on every route where he constructed telegraph lines in New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia's Northern Territory and Darwin. Todd organised the real time collection of the data by telegraph and began the preparation of synoptic maps. By the 1870s, and throughout the 1880s and 1890s, the meteorological data from the telegraph stations saw an increasing use of synoptic charts of pressure, wind, temperature and rainfall for daily weather forecasting.

Commonwealth Bureau of Meteorology, 1908–

H A Hunt, Commonwealth Meteorologist, from the Sydney Observatory in Federation and Meteorology, 2001

At Federation in 1901, legislation was passed to bring together the separate colonial and State Meteorological Services that had existed up to that time, creating the Commonwealth Bureau of Meteorology. Established in 1908, the Bureau provided Australia with one of the most effective national meteorological service systems in the world.

Nobel Laureate W. H. Bragg was a member of a scientific advisory committee to assist H A Hunt, the new Commonwealth Meteorologist, from the Sydney Observatory, in the implementation of the new Act. Hunt was Commonwealth Meteorologist from 1907 to 1931.

Antarctica meteorological data 1911–

Launching a radiosonde on Macquarie Island, 1968, image by S Harris, courtesy of Neil Streten.

Since the Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE) 191114 led by Douglas Mawson, expeditions to Antarctica have made significant contributions to meteorology. Meteorological data was recorded at the three bases, and Mawson's expedition team transmitted meteorological data to the weather bureau in Melbourne every day for two years from Macquarie Island. Today the Bureau of Meteorology continues to operate observing stations at Australia's Antarctic bases.

An aviation meteorological office in Darwin 1934

Throughout the 1930s, there were major new requirements for meteorological services and observations that emerged with the rapid growth of civil aviation, Following the loss of the Southern Cloud and Kyeema due to weather, and the opening of the Imperial Airways Service in 1934, a much expanded and improved weather service was required.

RAAF Meteorological Service, Lee Point, Darwin, Image Australian War Memorial

The first aviation meteorological office was established in Darwin in 1934 to support the Empire Flying Boat route. By1939, the Bureau was operating a total of 23 aerodrome observing offices, including ten providing forecasts and briefing for pilots.

1939–45 Bureau staff in defence uniforms

Following the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, there was a rapid expansion of services with responsibility for providing all meteorological services needed by the defence forces while still continuing to meet civil requirements.

From April 1941 to July 1946, most of the staff of the Bureau served in uniform throughout Australia and the islands as members of the RAAF Directorate of Meteorological Services… whether as members of Mobile Met Flights in Timor, New Guinea, Borneo, Malaysia or the New Hebrides, on station around Australia or, later in the war, at Allied Headquarters in Brisbane.
Bureau of Meteorology, A hundred years of science and service, 2001, p.6

RAAF Wirraway aircraft flying above large cumulus clouds, Darwin, 1943, courtesy of Dr John Joyce, The Story of the RAAF Meteorological Service

The weather intelligence required during the war was for both long-range strategic planning as well as short-range forecasts for military operations. Part of the meteorological operations included a Climatological Intelligence Section.

The weather factor in warfare was a key consideration from small operations, such as the Japanese advancing to Ambon under cover of bad weather, to the key battles of the Coral Sea Milne Bay and the Bismarck Sea. Both the Coral and Bismarck Sea battles were won through superior knowledge and tactical use of the weather. Advances were made by the Japanese during squalls but the Japanese cover was broken by clear sunlight with Allied aircraft forces ready to fire.

Occasionally flights were abandoned because of typhoons and between December 1941, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and January 1942, when conditions were more severe than predicted by RAAF Meteorology; most of the aircraft, Catalinas of 11 and 20 Squadrons, failed to reach the target area.

Flight-Lieutenant Bryan Rofe, OIC of the meteorological section at Koepang, in hospital at Fremantle after the escape from Timor, courtesy of the Australian War Memorial, AWM 044686

Early in 1942, 33 RAAF officers and airmen remained on Timor and the officer in charge of the group was Flight-Lieutenant Bryan Rofe (D.Met.S.) formerly OIC of the meteorological section at Koepang. The subsequent escape of the Australians 'was a story of sheer courage and of grim hide-and-seek with the Japanese in the jungles and hills of Timor'. In trying to escape Timor and reach Australia, some men stayed alive for 89 days with vital radio equipment and secret documents before being rescued, on the third attempt by an American submarine in wild surf over two days. Just outside of Fremantle, the submarine caught fire but was able to be towed by tug to safety.

Military deaths during the war from weather were not just on the battlefield. On 5 March 1945, despite being provided with weather predictions of a worsening cyclone,

Major-General G. A. Vasey, CB, OBS, DSO, one of Australia's greatest soldiers, perished when his aircraft crashed into the sea off Cairns. With him, as well as nine other occupants of the plane, died Major-General R. M. Downes, GMG, ED.
The Weather Factor in Warfare

Meteorological stations and climate monitoring network 2001–

Weather Station with Ngurrara Rangers, courtesy of the Kimberley Land Council.

Today, in working to predict seasonal variations and local climate, the Bureau collects information from about eight hundred (800) land surface meteorological stations, many thousands of daily rainfall stations, and dozens of weather balloon stations and weather-watch radars across Australia. Some Automatic Weather Stations (AWS) collect data at one-minute intervals.

A network for long-term climate monitoring has been established with one hundred Australian Reference Climate Stations (RCS). Their purpose is to undertake high quality, long-term climate monitoring, particularly with regard to climate change analysis.

Automatic Weather Station being installed at Haupt Nunataks SSW of Casey, courtesy of Bureau of Meteorology.

The establishment of the RCS network followed a request by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) to all of its member nations in 1990. Data that is collected includes: rainfall, wind, temperature, fog, thunder, humidity, pressure, ocean temperatures and sunshine data.

Two Australians, Dr N A Streten and Mr H A Hutchinson, have chaired the WMO's Working Group on Antarctic Meteorology.

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History of meteorological services


  • Alan Reid, Banksias and Bilbies - Seasons of Australia, 1995.
  • Bureau of Meteorology, A hundred years of science and service, 2001

Last updated: 17 March 2008, 29 June 2013
Creators: Kathryn Wells