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Extreme weather in Australia - it's not all sunshine and surf

December 28, 2023 7:00 AM |

Australia Weather

Australia is a nation labelled with numerous clichés and stereotypes, mostly perpetuated by people who have never been there.  Most of these at least have a basis in truth. Laid back attitude? Mostly. Love gambling? Australians wager more than any other nationality. Endless sunshine winter and summer? Now that’s not entirely true.

Yes, Australia’s most popular spots like the Gold Coast in Queensland enjoy more than 300 sunny days each year. But even here, some of the remaining 65 can throw up a surprise or two. Here, we look at some of the biggest weather extremes ever recorded Down Under.

Extreme rainfall in the casino city

We mentioned that Australians love a wager, and it is not just on the Aussie Rules football or the blackjack table. Betting on the weather became something of a craze in 2020 when there was nothing else to bet on. But here’s a wager that nobody took up. Last October, the city that usually experiences about a meter of rain per year received 12 months worth in the space of a week.

Roads were flooded and locals took cover in the city’s two casinos – so it was not all bad news. Those stranded at home or in cars could still play blackjack on their phones while they waited out the downpours (see for more details).

Record temperatures and bushfires further south 

Those living in South Australia would welcome some of that rainfall most years. The driest state of the driest continent faces a constant battle against nature. Every summer is harsh, but 2009 saw things escalate to a new level.

Temperatures went almost literally off the scale as the mercury nudged 50C (130F), triggering bushfires across the state and into neighboring Victoria. Australians still talk about the Black Saturday bushfires. But what few realize is that while the bushfires claimed 173 lives, an additional 374 people died as a result of the heatwave.

Snow days at Charlotte Pass

 Snow in Australia? It’s uncommon in the major cities and population centers, but once you get out into the mountainous regions of Victoria and New South Wales, it is a different matter. The Snowy River is so called for a reason, and it passes through Charlotte Pass, the closest village to Mount Kosciuszko, Australia’s tallest mountain.

Charlotte Pass is the coldest place in Australia, and winter temperatures regularly drop below 10C (14F). But in 1994, the temperature plummeted to a record low of -23C (-9.4F).

Tropical Cyclone Tracy decimated Darwin

The Northern Territories experience a tropical climate quite different to that seen in the southern states of Australia. Tropical cyclones are part of life, and can be destructive, a little like tornados in the USA.

On Christmas Eve 1974, a small tropical cyclone formed over the Arafura Sea about 230 miles to the northeast of Darwin. The Darwin Weather Bureau expected it to pass the state capital, but in the early hours of Christmas Day, it changed direction and headed straight for the city. Winds of 135 mph were recorded before the instruments stopped working. Residents were taken completely by surprise and more than 70 lives were lost.

Dust storms invade the cities

Back to Sydney where we began, and while the city has the ocean to one side, it has thousands of miles of desert to the other. Major dust storms are not uncommon, and they can carry dust particles to a height of three miles into the atmosphere.

Dust storms like these can carry sand particles to the other side of the world. However, in Sydney, the bigger concern is dust storms that are less than a mile high. These can reduce visibility to 500 meters or less, which is exactly what happened when the city experienced the most severe dust storm in its history back in 1942 and brought the city to a halt.

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