Weather downunder – Australia’s climate in the 1800s

This information references Australian newspapers from the period 1830 onwards. You can click the link to view the original publication. The lists are not exhaustive and multiple reports of the same event appearing in different publications is usual, however for brevity only one is included. Climatic events at sea and overseas were widely reported, but are not included.

Australia posed many problems for immigrants, particularly affecting the vast number of those from agricultural backgrounds. With the seasonal calendars “flipped”, colonists had to re-learn everything they knew about growing food, preparing shelter and protecting themselves from extreme elements, much of which was unheard of in the northern hemisphere nations.

As natural disasters often predicated human movement and radical changes in circumstances (eg: failed crops, job losses, financial stress etc), understanding the climatic conditions may help family history researchers appreciate how ancestors moved and were motivated. It may also reveal the rise and fall of disease, health, longevity and mortality of life in an untamed country.

In Australia’s colonial time understanding Australian weather was a science in itself, with many of the “norms” thrown out the window. While “of droughts and flooding rains” is a concept we are now all familiar with, it was new territory for early Australian life. Our ancestors were not told what weather they were experiencing, they lived it, and adapted their lives accordingly.

Floods 1830-1844

In the early decades shown, much of the commentary is limited to the developing cities such as Sydney, Melbourne and Hobart/Launceston due to the sparsity of people in the regions and infrequent news reporting. As the growing population moved, so did the observations. Therefore, the increase in recorded events may not indicate changing weather patterns, but merely a wider playing field.

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Bushfires 1830-1844

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Emigrant shipping

From about 1840, as shipping to and from Australia increased, the number of reports describing severe weather experienced at sea dominated the newspapers.  The weather effects on shipping included storms, hurricanes, tidal waves, earthquakes and even sea bound snow storms.  Reports included complete loss (wrecks), extensive damage at sea and in ports, widespread sickness and disease such as cholera and dysentery aboard boats due to rotting food and contaminated water. The loss of human life was often catastrophic while goods and livestock were not spared either. The reports are numerous however, are not generally included in these lists.

Storms 1832-1844

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Severe weather had a profound impact on food supplies, with fires and storms often devastating crops and orchards making food scarce and expensive. This made the population susceptible to disease with water sources often becoming polluted. Earthquakes and floods impacted the way buildings and homes were built as well as the laying of roads and rail.

Earthquakes 1832-1849

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The occurrence of earthquakes often brought terror to the colonists. There are many detailed reports of the devastating effects of earthquakes in more populated foreign lands where cities and entire populations were wiped out in moments. Superstitions raged, predictions were made. However, what is apparent is that while the origins of earthquakes were greatly misunderstood, the lack of historical context of earthquakes in Australia invoked significant fear.

Temperature 1831-1856

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To it’s benefit, Australian food production cycles meant that crops and livestock could be farmed in abundance at times when most other countries were experiencing their low growing seasons. This provided produce such as fruit, wool and timber to be exported to Europe, Asia and the North Americas where seasonal demand was high. In Australia this bought employment, opportunity and prosperity in times when populations in other parts of the globe were impoverished, sick and starving.

Reviews and other events

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