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Australian Meteorology through the 20th Century


The Origins of Australian Meteorology

Meteorology in the 20th Century

The Weather and Climate of the Twentieth Century
Tropical Cyclones
Severe Storms

The Great Weather and Climate Events of the Twentieth Century

A Century of Progress in Science and Service


Australian Meteorological Milestones of the 20th Century



Contact us


The great Australian droughts of the twentieth century have mostly been closely linked with the major swings in the Southern Oscillation Index (SOI) (Figure 6), with drought in eastern Australia coinciding with the El Niņo (warm central and eastern Pacific Ocean) phase of the El Niņo-La Niņa cycle.

The major drought years included:

  • 1901–03, the final years of the Federation Drought during which sheep and cattle numbers were halved;

  • 1911–16, which saw the loss of 19 million sheep and 2 million cattle;

  • 1918–20, which affected virtually all of the continent except for parts of Western Australia;

  • 1939–45, a protracted drought with the loss of 30 million sheep between 1942 and 1945;

  • 1958–68, a prolonged period of widespread drought with a 40% drop in wheat harvest in the final two years, a loss of 20 million sheep and a decrease of farm income of $300–500m;

  • 1982–83, a relatively short but severe drought over eastern Australia with total losses in excess of $3b;

  • 1991–95, one of the most severe droughts of the century over eastern Australia, with total losses estimated in excess of $5b.


Major bushfires have occurred in most parts of Australia over the past century, many causing significant loss of life and extensive property damage. In the southern States, they have usually been associated with the onset of hot dry northerly winds following extended drought conditions, but in Western Australia they have also been associated with the southern fringe of tropical cyclone circulations such as cyclone Alby in 1978.

Among the most notorious bushfires have been:

  • 13 January (Black Friday) 1939, the most disastrous fires experienced to that time extending over three quarters of Victoria with the loss of 71 lives;

  • 10 December 1944, devastating fires in the Blue Mountains and other parts of NSW;

  • 16 February (Ash Wednesday) 1983, disastrous fires in South Australia and Victoria with the loss of 75 lives and more than 2,000 houses;

  • 1–8 January 1994, more than 200 major fires along the NSW coast and ranges with the loss of four lives and 185 houses.

Severe Storms

Severe thunderstorms with lightning, hail, tornadoes and strong winds have affected most parts of Australia, with the southwest coast of Western Australia and the central coast of NSW having been particularly affected.

Some notable storms have occurred on:

  • 26 November 1971, when severe storms over the Woden Valley (ACT) caused disastrous flash flooding and loss of life;

  • 13 November 1976, when the Sandon (Vic) tornado left a 6km long path of destruction and two persons dead;

  • 23 May 1994, when large areas of southwestern Western Australia experienced violent gales with the loss of two lives and severe damage to some 600 houses;

  • 29 September 1996, when widespread severe storms broke out over NSW with three tornadoes and hail up to 7cm. Total damage was estimated at $340m;

  • 14 April 1999, when an unseasonal hailstorm struck the eastern suburbs of Sydney at night with damage to 63,000 cars, 22,000 homes and several commercial aircraft.

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© Online Edition Australian Science and Technology Heritage Centre and Bureau of Meteorology 2001
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