What really happened in 1878?
The raw data at Nobby’s near Newcastle (graphed below) shows monster heat in 1878, 1879, and 1883 — far hotter than modern times. Its unlikely that it was recorded with modern equipment, so it’s hard to compare. Was it really hotter? We don’t know when the Stevenson screen was installed. I went hunting through our wonderful historic Trove archive of old newspaper records. It doesn’t help us make any accurate comparisons, or even tell us about annual averages, but there is a remarkable story of exceptional heat and dryness in January 1877 that few Australians know. Let’s revisit the times of forgotten people who lived when CO2 was perfect and the climate was ideal.
How hot were the 1800s in Australia? My favorite quote is about the miners near Braidwood (in the mountains between Canberra and the coast). It reached 108F but look at the cultural norms:
“Years ago in the valley the miners always ‘knocked off’ if the thermometer registered 112 degrees (44.4C) in the shade, but times and wages are changed now, and the poor men are willing, to work on days like last Friday 18.1.78″ (see the Freeman’s Journal link below for the full quote).
Piecing together the quotes I found below, it looks like an El Nino probably formed in 1877, which caused a widespread drought right across Australia. Rivers all over NSW were running dry, and so presumably was the soil, which may explain the heat. When soils are dry they gain heat faster because there is less evaporative cooling, and less humidity in the air. Wetter soils limit the heat gains. January 1878 was described as “intensely hot” in many places, with temperatures recorded “in the shade” at Walgett of 120F, Coonamble, 113F, Sydney 114F and at Hay 117F. Later in January it reach 119 at Gunndah, and 129F at Coonamble.
The rivers of NSW were empty: At Lachlan ” the water-supply has given out and residents are reduced to great straits”. The Namoi River also dried up. And the ” upper part of the Moruya River, is completely dried up in some places — in other parts it consists of a chain of ponds.”
WALGETT, Thursday. . The weather to-day is intensely hot, and water is very scarce. The river is drying up fast, and stock are dying. There is no appearance of rain. Tho temperature in the shade to-day was 120.
COONAMBLE, Thursday. The thermometer’s average for six weeks has been 102 in the shade. To-day it registers 113. There are no signs of rain. The grass which sprang since last thunderstorms has been quite burned up. There were no stock passings to report.
GRAFTON, Friday. The weather is intensely hot.
The Riverine Grazier (Hay, NSW : 1873 – 1954)
Saturday 12 January 1878
“The heat is now the current topic at Hay. Business, where not entirely suspended, receives very little attention. Scarcely a soul is to be seen in the streets; and even in the stores, those who are not enjoying the cool of the cellar, may be found lolling on the counters, talking about the weather, and occasionally scrutinizing the thermometer. On Thursday the glass indicated 117 degrees of heat in the fair shade, on a wall on which the sun never shines at noon ; in the sun the glass indicated 154 degrees. We know of one case in which a gentle man fainted in the shade, and we fear that next week will bring its records of sunstroke. On the Lachlan, the Darling, amid the Billabong, the water-supply has given out and residents are reduced to great straits. At Hay, fortunately, there is no fear of failure in this direction, but a few more days of this weather will certainly lead to a serious exodus to cooler latitudes.
“The weather has of late been somewhat,warm, in fact on Tuesday last I may say it was hot, considering the thermometer stood 114 in the shade. A southerly-burster set in about 10 o’clock at night, but the houses of our citizens were so intensely heated that even this wind did not cool them, and consequently but little sleep could be obtained during that night. Wednesday and Thursday were moderately cool, but today, we have had another scorcher. A gentleman informs me that had never experienced the ‘heat so much as he did in Sydney, on Tuesday, but even that extreme was surpassed in Maitland to-day, where the heat was far greater. We have at Newcastle, “nearly at all times, a breeze from the sea, which our northern friends are deprived of.
Cootamundra Herald (NSW : 1877 – 1954) Tuesday 22 January 1878
Gunnedah. — Friday. “The weather is excessively hot, and the thermometer registered 119 in the shade to-day. The Namoi River has dried up, and there is no water suitable for drinking purposes. A meeting has been held for the purpose, of’ sinking wells on the river bank, to obtain water for the inhabitants. Coonamble, — Friday. — The thermometer to-day was 129- in the shade. The birds are dying in hundreds. There is no sign of rain.
Freeman’s Journal (Sydney, NSW : 1850 – 1932) Saturday 26 January 1878
Weather. — “The weather since my last has been exceedingly hot, Fahrenheit registering as high as 108 degrees in the shade. Sydney people will think on reading this that Aralueu is situated on the great plains of New South Wales, like Fort Bourke, Wilcannia, &c., but such, fortunately, is not the case. On the whole, we possess a climate very much resembling that of Sydney. Hot winds, how ever, seem to be a speciality of Araluen, for we had the pleasure of four visits during the last fortnight. It was on these days that the temperature went to extremes. Strange to relate, one of the hot winds before alluded to came from the coast district, and stranger still, it rivalled in intensity of heat its ‘brethren’ from the north- west On these days there could be seen (so I am informed) our pseudo-squatters and semi-selectors washing their hands invisible water, and fervently praying, that this never to-be-forgotten drought of 1875-6-7 might be brought to a conclusion before the termination of next month. From Braidwood to Moruya cattle are in a pitiable condition on the whole, and grass is not to be seen. The Dead Rivers, that is to say, the upper part of the Moruya River, is completely dried up in some places — in other parts it consists of a chain of ponds. The main stream is flowing, but the volume is only a fraction of what it ought to be. In former years the same thing has occurred, but, as a general rule, it was followed by heavy and continuous rains in February.? On this ground alone it is predicted by many old residents on the river that rain may be expected for a certainty next month. We earnestly hope that these modem seers may have their prognostication realized. The last four or five days we have been cool and delightful. Years ago in the valley the miners always ‘knocked off’ if the thermometer registered 112 degrees in the shade, but times and wages are changed now, and the poor men are willing, to work on days like last Friday 18.1.78; in order to put in a full week.
The Singleton Argus and Upper Hunter General Advocate (NSW : 1874 – 1880)
Saturday 16 March 1878
“The’ weather has again changed for the worse, and instead of bright skies and gentle breezes, varied by the occas -ional showers of a few days back, we are now undergoing a sort of baking process, no doubt In order to fit us for thoronghly appreciating the cool weather when it does come-— at present it appear, unlikely, to say the least of it. However, we will hope for the best and — roast meanwhile.
- 1877 All States affected by severe drought, with disastrous losses in Queensland. In Western Australia many native trees died, swamps dried up and crops failed.
- 1880 to 1886 Drought in Victoria (northern areas and Gippsland); New South Wales (mainly northern wheat belt, Northern Tablelands and south coast); Queensland (1881–86, in south-east with breaks – otherwise mainly in coastal areas, the central highlands and central interior in 1883–86); and South Australia (1884–86, mainly in agricultural areas).
“The thought of famine in Australia seems quaint, from a 20th century perspective. Famine is what occurs in other countries during droughts, not here. And severe famines have certainly occurred in various parts of the world, during El Niño events. Perhaps the most notorious was the El Niño of 1877. This event resulted in the deaths of over nine million people in China and eight million in India. But this disaster led to the first scientific attempts to understand and predict drought and famine. Henry Blanford, then the head of the India Meteorological Department noticed that atmospheric pressures were higher than usual over India during the drought. He advised meteorologists in other parts of the British Empire of this fact and asked them about atmospheric pressures in their colonies.
Blanford’s message reached the South Australian Government Astronomer and Meteorologist Charles Todd (better known for building the overland telegraph between Darwin and Adelaide) who noticed that Australian atmospheric pressures were also high, and that the country had been in a drought at the same time as India. The next time a wide spread drought struck Australia (in 1888) Todd realised that India and Australia often experienced drought at the same time. This is part of the suite of long-range connections between climate fluctuations in different parts of the world that we now call the Southern Oscillation. Todd (an Australian scientist) was the first to observe these “teleconnections”.
An Australian was also one of the very first to suggest that we could use these connections to forecast climate. By 1910 the broad picture of teleconnections associated with the Southern Oscillation had been established. Edward Quayle, a scientist with the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, published a paper suggesting that tropical pressure fluctuations could be used to predict rainfall over eastern Australia. He expanded this work in several publications over the next couple of decades, but his work remained unused until the late 1970s when I checked the accuracy of Quayle’s forecast method. It would have produced forecasts with considerable skill, if they had been used over the 60 or so intervening years. Now, variants on his ideas form the basis for routine operational seasonal climate prediction for Australia. Quayle’s prediction method is just part of the El Niño – Southern Oscillation.