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Table of Contents

Australian Meteorology through the 20th Century


The Origins of Australian Meteorology

Meteorology in the 20th Century

The Weather and Climate of the Twentieth Century

The Great Weather and Climate Events of the Twentieth Century
The Federation Drought, 1895–1902
The Mackay Cyclone of 1918
Northeastern Tasmanian Floods, April 1929
Black Friday in Victoria, January 1939
Record Floods in New South Wales, February 1955
Fire and Storm—Southwest WA, 1961, 1978
Brisbane Floods, January 1974
Cyclone Tracy, Christmas 1974
The 1982–83 Drought
Ash Wednesday Fires, February 1983
Sydney Hailstorm, April 1999

A Century of Progress in Science and Service


Australian Meteorological Milestones of the 20th Century



Contact us
The Great Weather and Climate Events of the Twentieth Century

The Federation Drought, 1895–1902

The five years preceding Federation had been intermittently dry over most of the country. Very dry conditions set in across eastern Australia during the spring of 1901, and became entrenched over the following months. As the drought worsened, enormous sheep and cattle losses were reported from Queensland, and many rivers dried up. The Darling River at Bourke virtually ran dry, while Murray River towns such as Mildura, Balranald and Deniliquin—at that time dependent on the river for transport—suffered badly. The Australian wheat crop was all but lost. Rain in December 1902 brought temporary relief, with a more substantial break in autumn 1903. The long drought and its severe climax in 1902 had devastated stock numbers, and began focusing attention on planning for irrigation, especially in the three States through which the Murray River flows.

The Mackay Cyclone of 1918

The Mackay cyclone was the first of two cyclones to inflict heavy damage on significant population centres in northern Queensland during early 1918. Moving in from the Coral Sea late on 20 January, its devastating winds terrified residents as buildings disintegrated, gas and water supplies failed, and roofing iron scythed though the air. A storm surge inundated the town around 5am, with large waves reportedly breaking in the centre of Mackay. Phenomenal rainfall—1,411mm in three days at Mackay Post Office—generated the worst flooding in Mackay's history. Some 30 people lost their lives, mainly in Mackay and Rockhampton.

Northeastern Tasmanian Floods, April 1929

Although northeastern Tasmania's climate is normally relatively benign, it is prone to intense rainfall over short periods. The worst event of the century occurred in April 1929, when 22 people died. Rain commenced late on 3 April and, in three days, up to 500mm fell over the high country of the northeast, and over a smaller area south of the Burnie/Ulverstone area. The Briseis Dam on the Cascade River crumbled, and the resulting torrent, carrying thousands of tons of trees, rocks and gravel, overwhelmed houses and offices, with 14 deaths. Over 1,000 houses in Launceston were inundated, and most other north coastal rivers were heavily flooded. Scenes of devastation—to man-made structures and natural features—were widespread across northern Tasmania. It took many weeks to repair the damage.

Black Friday in Victoria, January 1939

Following an exceptionally dry winter and spring, vegetation over most of Victoria was in an extremely hazardous condition by January 1939. Heatwave conditions from early in the second week of January saw many large fires break out, especially on the 10th when Melbourne registered a maximum of 44.7C. Twenty-one people died in these fires, which could not be extinguished despite milder conditions in southern Victoria on the 11th and 12th. On the 13th the onset of strong and even hotter winds (Melbourne reaching a record 45.6C) coalesced these fires into a sea of flame. Several timber towns were burnt to the ground, extensive tracts of mountain forest (including Melbourne's main catchment area) were incinerated, and 50 more people died, many trapped in timber mills. In the ensuing Royal Commission, many changes to rural fire fighting practices in Victoria were proposed, and eventually implemented.

Record Floods in New South Wales, February 1955

The Hunter Valley floods of late February 1955 have, in many people's minds, come to symbolise flooding in Australia. A monsoon depression moving south from Queensland deposited up to 250mm of rain in 24 hours over the already-saturated Hunter region. The Hunter, and several west-flowing rivers, swiftly rose to record levels, drowning the surrounding country. In East Maitland, water completely submerged houses, and 15,000 people were evacuated. It was a similar story throughout the Hunter, Macquarie, Namoi and Gwydir River Valleys, with houses destroyed, metres of flood waters in the streets, and many thousands of stock drowned. In all, 14 people died, and damage to bridges, roads, railways and telephonelines took months to repair. This event was the most spectacular of many heavy rain episodes over eastern Australia between late 1954 and the end of 1956.

Fire and Storm—Southwest WA, 1961, 1978

Perhaps Western Australia's worst bushfire disaster—the Dwellingup fires—occurred in January 1961. An intense cyclone off the northwest coast led to five days (20 to 24 January) of gusty winds and 40C temperatures over the lower southwest. Fires, many started by lightning, burnt uncontrolled through this period. Strong northwest winds on the 24th drove the fires southward, destroying the township of Dwellingup, and many houses in other small settlements. Fortunately there was no loss of human life. A similar event occurred in early April 1978, when cyclone Alby swept past the southwest of Western Australia, generating severe gales (gusts to 150km/h) between Kalbarri and Albany, and causing widespread damage and coastal (storm surge) flooding, as well as raising large dust clouds. Over 360 separate fires flared, more than 114,000 hectares of forest and farmland were burned, and many buildings and homes destroyed.

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