The Dramas That Have Been Something To Talk About For One Hundred Years

January 14, 2000 The Rural News

Weather and the climate generally are key factors in making life on the land either pleasant, tolerable or disastrous. But the weather can never be taken for granted with its extremes of hot, cold and wet and dry.

The last century had all the extremes, as no doubt will this one. Dr Bill Wright of the Bureau of Meteorology National Climate Centre looks back at some of the more dramatic weather periods of the last hundred years.

Federation Drought 1895-1902

Many of Australia's worst droughts occur when one or two very dry years follow several years of generally below average rainfall.

Such was the case in the so-called "Federation drought", which began in the mid 1890s and reached its devastating climax in late 1901 and 1902.

The five years leading up to Federation (January 1901) saw intermittent dry spells over most of the country. particularly in 1897 and 1899; in most of Queensland, dry conditions were virtually unbroken from 1897.

Most other parts of the country had reasonable rain in 1900 and early 1901, hut with the coining of spring 1901 very dry weather set in across eastern Australia.

By February 1902 concerns were expressed about Sydney's water supply, and the New South Wales Government declared 26 February a day of 'humiliation and prayer" for rain in that State.

Similar declarations were made in Queensland in April and Victoria in September, as the drought worsened. Despite the pleas for divine intervention, things only got worse.

Though there was some winter-spring rain in Victoria and NSW, cold weather nullified its usefulness. In Queensland, enormous sheep and cattle losses were being reported by August.

On some far western properties, cattle numbers plummeted from tens of thousands to mere hundreds. Rivers in western Queensland dried up; at Bourke. the Darling River virtually ran dry.

Further south, towns near the Murray River 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, with close to the lowest yields of the century.

The drought began to break in mid-December when heavy general rain fell in Victoria, with more after Christmas. Rains extended to NSW and southern Queensland, while northern Queensland had reasonable falls from December onwards.

In Queensland, the 1902 drought was the culmination of eight years that were dry more often than not over most areas.

These years had a devastating effect on stock numbers: sheep numbers fell from 91 million to 54 million, and cattle from 11.8 million to 7 million.

The drought began focusing minds on irrigation, especially in the three states through which the Murray River flows: but it wasn't until the next severe drought in 1914 that the River Murray Commission was created.

The dust-up of November 1902

The year 1902 was one of appalling drought in eastern Australia. Whenever strong winds blew, desiccated soil was whipped into great dust clouds.

On the worst day, Wednesday. November 12, north westerly gales caused exceptional dust-storms to sweep across three states. The winds caused considerable damage in their own right, tearing roofs from buildings and uprooting trees across Victoria, South Australia and south-western New South Wales.

The storm was first reported in South Australia, where it affected many parts of the state. Thick clouds of dust shrouded Adelaide from early morning, reducing visibility to 20 metres.

It would have been quite an experience for Madame Melba, who had sung in the City of Churches the previous evening!

In Victoria and the Riverina, gales and dust began in the morning and worsened as the day went on. Reddish-brown dust filled the air as the temperature climbed to 380C.

A squall line seems to have crossed northern Victoria and the Riverina in the afternoon, because town after town reported a sudden terrifying increase in wind, and dust so thick that it put the town in total darkness for between five and 20 minutes.

The winds blew down telegraph poles over western Victoria, and it took days to repair the line from Melbourne to Adelaide. The mail coach from Geelong to Port Arlington. caught in the storm, was halted for 20 minutes as the elements terrified horses and passengers alike. After the storm, sand 30cm deep had to be shovelled from the line between Kerang and Swan Hill before trains could pass.

In some towns, "balls of fire" were reported. At Boort in central Victoria they reportedly fell into paddocks and streets, with showers of sparks as they struck the ground. In Chiltern and Deniliquin the balls were blamed for setting fire to buildings. A possible explanation is that fast-moving blowing dust particles generated static electricity, which ignited organic matter carried along with the dust.

The experience must have been truly frightening: the sky a lurid red, a hot gale blowing, dust thick enough for almost total darkness, and balls of fire to add to the terror. In NSW the mail coach from Hay to Deniliquin was delayed nine hours. In Hay itself, the Land Court had to adjourn when the president could not see the papers in front of him,

The dust reached Sydney early the next day: north-west winds were lighter. And the dust took the form of a haze that thickened during the day (ships reported that it extended from south of Sydney to Newcastle). Dust clouds reached as far north as Inverell, before heading out to sea.

The 1914-15 Disaster

The drought of 1914-15 became seared in the memory of Australians, primarily due to the disastrous failure of the wheat crop that year. The first signs of drought became evident in 1913, when rainfall in western Victoria, central areas of Tasmania, and settled areas of South Australia, was well below average in the normally wet April-July period.

Timely rain in early spring then saved the wheat crop and gave good pastoral prospects. But there was to be no such respite the following year, a strong El Nino year. 1914 started off very hot, and southern Victoria suffered from widespread bushfires in February and March.

Good rains fell over most of eastern Australia in March and April, but thereafter extremely dry conditions set in over most of the southern half of the country. Except in coastal NSW, drought became widespread and severe from July to October. Across large areas of the southern states the period May through October 1914 remains the driest such period on record.

The World War II drought

As in the Federation drought, dry conditions were more or less endemic during the period 1937 through 1945 over eastern Australia. The first serious deterioration of conditions occurred in 1937 over New South Wales, Victoria. much of Queensland and parts of Western Australia.

Isolated parts of NSW, notably the central west, suffered record low rainfall.

Things worsened in 1938 - unusually so, for this was a La Nina year. Drought intensified in NSW and Victoria and spread to eastern South Australia and the grain-growing areas of south-west Australia; Australian wheat yields plummeted to their lowest level since 1914,

In Victoria, an extremely dry six-month spell started in August: forests became tinder-dry, leading to the disastrous Black Friday bushfires of January 1939.

Relief finally came with heavy rain in late February 1939 over Victoria, South Australia and NSW, and rains were generally abundant over eastern and central Australia for the remainder of 1939.

The 1939 rains were but a respite. Dry weather set in again in December, and 1940 - a strong El Nino year - was one of the driest years of the century over most of southern Australia.

By August 1940 the Nepean Dam in NSW was empty; by October, water restrictions were imposed in Brisbane. In the west, Perth had its driest year on record.

The drought loosened its grip in the south-eastern states in November, and more emphatically so in January 1941, when heavy rains fell. The second half of 1941 was again very dry along the eastern seaboard, with water restrictions imposed in Sydney from September.

Fortunately, 1942 was a year of good general rain - the value of which became more evident when drought returned to the southern states in 1943, followed by an even worse 1944.

By April 1944 northern Victoria was carting water and failure of the winter-spring rains led to failure of the wheat crop.

As the drought extended into 1945, large rivers virtually dried up. By December 1944 the Hunter River had ceased to flow along most of its course. By January the Hawkesbury was dry at North Richmond.

By April 1945 most Victorian water storages were empty, the Murray had ceased to flow at Echuca, and Adelaide faced water shortages. As far north as Townsville there were water restrictions.

Dust-storms raged in South Australia, northern Victoria and southern NSW on many days in the summer of 1944-45.

The drought finally ended in the southern states in winter 1945, ensuring a good wheat crop, but continued into 1946 in southern Queensland and northern NSW (where in some regions, 1946 was the worst year of the lot).

Record floods hit NSW in 1955

The Hunter Valley floods of late February 1955 have in many people's minds come to symbolize flooding in Australia, helped by the dramatic images from the movie News-front.

Heavy rains had been falling over much of eastern Australia from October 1954, when on February 23 an intensifying monsoon depression moved south from Queensland.

Torrential rain developed, particularly over the area from Warren to Cassilis: 24 hour rainfall totals exceeded a phenomenal 250mm in 24 hours between Nevertire and Dunnedoo.

Heavy rains then moved east across the Liverpool ranges and down the Hunter valley. With such intense rain falling on already saturated ground, the Hunter, along with several westward-flowing rivers, soon reached unprecedented levels: devastation resulted.

At Maitland, the Hunter river surged a full metre higher than the previous record set three years earlier.

West of the Divide, the Macquarie River exceeded its previous record of 1.6 metres at Dubbo and destroyed many houses.