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Climate for a Nation

Forecast: 1 January 1901

Climates of Opinion

Battling the Elements

Forecast: 1 January 2001



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Battling the Elements

As the long drought was reaching its peak in 1902, the popular Queensland poet George Essex Evans sought to evoke the suffering of those 'fighting in the battle-line':
Drought and ruin hold the land:
Round our homes their hosts have met;
On our hearths their thrones are builded;
On our hearts their seals are set.[35]

But despair had not yet won, for the 'legions of the army' stood wearied but defiant. With 'steadfast hand' and 'gallant heart', settlers were locked a seemingly endless war against a capricious and malevolent foe—nature.

Evans was a friend of Littleton Groom, and corresponded regularly with Alfred Deakin.[36] Like many others, he shared their dreams of national destiny. Although Federation brought a sense of unity, nationhood was still a work in progress. Australia had to prove itself worthy of a place in the vanguard of white civilisation. Even as the drought ravaged lives and landscape, Evans welcomed it as an opportunity for improvement:

In the surfeit of abundance
Lurks the canker of decay:
From the discipline of hardship
Grows the power to mould and sway
With threads of pain and bitterness
God weaves upon the loom of Fate:
In furnace-fires of suffering
He makes a nation great.[37]

'Iron-seared', the mighty nations of Europe had won empires and influence through war. The character of their manhood had been tested and hardened in adversity. Lacking the same character-building opportunities, Australia declared war on the weather.

The battle against the elements, it was imagined, would strengthen both nation and race. Australia would earn full possession of the continent, and its sturdy settler stock would emerge healthy and vigorous. This was the dream of 'White Australia', and the battle was given urgency by perceived threats to the nation's racial mission.[38] Looming always was the challenge of Australia's tropical north. If the drought-flood cycle of southern climes seemed cruel, it was at least more familiar than the heat and humidity of the tropics. The north was not just empty, it was alien. The war had to be carried deep into enemy territory.

In 1913, Littleton Groom introduced a lecture by Dr Anton Breinl, the director of the Australian Institute of Tropical Medicine. 'Australians have taken upon themselves the task of settling the northern parts of their continent', Groom noted , however, 'it was yet to be proved' that such a policy could be justified 'according to the rules of nature'.[39] Many argued that the tropical climate was not only uncomfortable for white settlers, it was injurious.[40] Basic standards of moral and physical 'hygiene' were compromised, and the threat of disease was ever present. Instead of improvement, the north raised the spectre of racial degeneration. In attempting to subdue this 'foreign' land, white settlers might themselves become more 'asian'. Australia was 'faced with one of the most far-reaching experiments of modern times', Breinl argued, 'an experiment which certainly justified the application of unlimited effort'. For only in meeting this challenge, he continued, could the nation be certain of 'the possession not only of Northern Australia, but also of the whole of a united Australia by a white community'.[41]

Groom, of course, was optimistic, and imagined the settler venturing northwards into battle 'accompanied by the best scientific brain that could be sent with him'.[42] But the tropical climate was doubly threatening. It presented both a test of character for White Australia, and a reminder of the nearness of Asia. If Australians were unable to master the heat and undertake 'effective occupation' of their empty northern frontier, how could they hope to repel invasion from Asia. Indeed, could they legitimately claim to own a land in which they could not live?[43]

Knowledge of Australia's tropical climate and its effects on white settlement seemed vitally important for the nation's growth, integrity and security. And yet, when an attack finally came, Australia was unprepared. The Pacific War revealed the limitations of the country's meteorological systems and prompted a rapid overhaul in organisation, method and theory. As they have throughout history, science and war formed a fruitful alliance.

With the first use of poison gas in 1915, the wind became a weapon of war.[44] Weather had always played its part in the outcome of military campaigns, but, in World War 1, with gas and the increasing use of aircraft, meteorology found itself promoted to the battle front.[45] Indeed, as European meteorologists began to pay close attention to the boundaries between air masses, the term 'front' was borrowed from the battlefield to play an important role in forecasting, eventually to appear as the bumpy lines on our weather map.[46]

When war threatened again in 1939, Australian authorities were quick to appreciate the potential value of meteorological services and arranged for control of the Bureau to be transferred to the Department of Air.[47] A vast network of observing and forecasting stations was established across Australia and the Pacific. But the problem of the tropics remained. As new data flooded in, the inadequacy of existing forecasting methods was revealed. The techniques of frontal analysis, developed originally in Norway, had to be modified to suit the rather different climatic conditions. A new tropical research unit was charged with the task, its work receiving international recognition.[48] As a result of such successes, meteorology emerged from the war with new confidence, new abilities, and a growing weight of public expectation. The tropics had been robbed of some of their mysteries and dangers, but new threats had arisen. The wind had once again become a carrier of death.

Brighter than the sun, with its mushroom cloud, rushing winds, and rain of deadly fallout, the atomic bomb invaded public consciousness through the metaphors of meteorology. The weather had changed for the worse. As the effects of radioactive fallout became more widely understood, civil defence planners and military strategists placed increasing value on accurate meteorological data. One of Australia's civil defence chiefs returned from an overseas briefing in 1955, emphasising 'the need to get our meteorological experts together to give special study to the behaviour of winds at varying altitudes'. 'It is these winds', he continued, 'that move "fall out" material across incredible distances'.[49] The head of the Bureau, L. J. Dwyer, sought to keep his staff informed of fallout studies, stressing that 'meteorological factors play an important role in both the peaceful and hostile uses of atomic energy'.{50}

When Australia agreed to host British atomic bomb tests, meteorologists were enlisted as guardians of public safety. As talk of drifting clouds and radioactive rain began to alarm the populace in 1956, the Minister for Supply, Howard Beale, outlined the meteorological precautions to be taken at the test site in the Monte Bello Islands: 'the forecasting of suitable weather conditions', he stressed, ' is a vital factor in ensuring that the actual firings only take place when weather conditions are satisfactory'.[51] Thirty years later, the Royal Commission investigating the tests noted that according to available climatic data the chances of obtaining 'satisfactory' conditions were slim. Political imperatives outweighed meteorological assessments.[52]

With the coming of the atomic bomb and the prospect of global annihilation, some argued that national boundaries had become irrelevant. The wind knew no borders. And yet, as the world rushed into a new 'cold' war, divisions were heightened, frontiers were reinforced. Distance is measured in many units, from the spatial to the cultural—from angstrom and metres, to prejudice and fear. In the early years of the twentieth century, Australia seemed vast, but Asia was oppressively close. Throughout our history, weather and climate have served both to bridge the distances and emphasise the gaps, enabling us to imagine both a nation and its enemies.

People in Bright Sparcs - Dwyer, Leonard Joseph

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