On the day my editor and I first talk about this essay, I’m so sweaty I can barely grip the phone. The house is shrouded. All blinds are down. It’s thirty-five degrees outside—the fourth day in a row over thirty.
I work in an old weatherboard shop. It faces north. There’s no verandah. My editor talks sensibly about our hunger for weather news and overworked Bureau of Meteorology staff but I’m feeling under siege in my hot, gloomy home. I haven’t exercised for days. My mind is dull and clunky. I want to climb into a fridge. Bathe in iced water. Move to an igloo or at least watch a soothing David Attenborough doco set on a frozen planet.
I limp through the conversation and spend the long weekend at Cape Conran. Four days later, the temperature is still in the mid thirties. Plunging back into our stuffy, darkened house, the air seems thicker somehow. I lie on a couch and stick to leather. I shower, avoid towelling and am dry again in five minutes. At ten that night, it’s still thirty degrees. At one o’clock I wake to find my seven-year-old upright on a sofa. ‘I can’t sleep,’ she moans. ‘Can you put ice in my water?’
At 7 am I check the forecast on my phone. Groundhog day. A top of thirty-six. By 7.15, I’m in the garden, watering plants, picking cherry tomatoes. After dropping the kids at school, I dress like a beekeeper to hang out washing. Then I wander listlessly from room to room, avoiding work.
As I’m checking the bureau’s website for news of a change, the doorbell rings. My neighbour, Rick, wants to use the printer. The light is bright and white through the chink in the door and hot air slaps my face. I usher him in and we bitch about the heat.
After Rick leaves, Mum, who’s eighty-one, rings in tears. Her evaporative cooling system can’t keep up. She wants to buy ceiling fans as well. We talk for a while, then I drift around some more, delaying the inevitable. The thought of going anywhere in daylight, even by car, fills me with dread. But there’s food to buy, kids to pick up from school.
The steering wheel is so hot I’m surprised it hasn’t melted. But at least there’s air conditioning. Lovely blasts of wasteful cool air. At the shops I dash across the road, tugging my shirt across the suntanned bit beneath my neck where the skin has prematurely aged. At school, the traffic’s crazy, so I park around the corner. It’s only 100 metres and I’ve got a hat and parasol but as I totter down the treeless street I’m cursing for not applying sunblock. This papery umbrella feels way too thin to offer protection. The sun is a sniper picking off exposed bits: wrists, ankles, tops of hands.
I meet another mother, a piano teacher who also works at home, and we grumble about the weather. ‘I was just too grumpy to do anything today,’ she sighs. My daughters emerge, their faces tomato red under oversized hats. Ruby tells me she has started a petition calling for sport lessons to be cancelled on days over thirty-five.
That night, we go out for Vietnamese. More lovely air con. In bed later, I clutch our household’s secret weapon for tackling heat insomnia: a child’s singlet frozen into a twisted shape evocative of a Frank Gehry building. I press the thing against my leg, then stomach, then chest. There’s a stab of shock at its painful coldness, followed by relief for oh, a minute or two. Each time I wake, the singlet has progressively softened. In the morning, it’s a damp, floppy, artless rag. I find my phone and tap the weather icon.
The weather is changing in front of our eyes. Heatwaves are getting longer and more frequent (in January, Victoria had its hottest four-day period on record) and rainfall more intense. Since 1910, Australia has warmed by around one degree centigrade—mostly since 1950. Last year was the nation’s hottest on record. Sydney had its hottest January day (45.8 °C). Melbourne, where I live, had a record March heatwave, with nine straight days over 30 °C. And what did I do about it? Did I donate to the ACF? Write to a member of parliament demanding further action on climate change? No. I drove five hours to a beach campsite, with the air con on.
In the time since, we’ve voted in a prime minister who once described climate change science as ‘absolute crap’ and been chastised by conservative politicians for linking New South Wales’ October bushfires to global warming. In the face of cashed-up vested interests, tackling the big picture on climate change—moving to green energy, abandoning our fetishising of economic growth as a measure of success—can seem depressingly hard. In the meantime, though, we can worry about the weather.
I’m a huge radar fan.
—Weather nerd Madeline Gillard1
The weather has as many moods as we do. Hot, cold, windy, chance of a storm, partly cloudy, sunny with a late cool change. The weather affects my mood. Last week it rained for three days and I felt as if I was stuck in a ship’s cabin, peering through a porthole. Today the pale blue sky is like a stretched balloon. Flowers preen in the sun. The bougainvillea positively gloats. Anything feels possible—except sitting at a computer, writing.
The weather is our friend. But it’s definitely a frenemy. In January 2013, after awful floods hit Queensland while Victoria endured bushfires, then prime minister Julia Gillard spoke of the weather with the sort of nation-building rhetoric usually saved for a wartime foe. ‘Whether it’s bushfires, whether it’s floods, we are being challenged by nature,’ she said. ‘But we are a strong and smart nation and will get through this as we always do by pulling together.’
The weather is round-the-clock news. When I was a child, weather reports were a half-page in the morning paper, a line or two at the end of the radio bulletin and five minutes on the ABC as the fabulous, bespectacled Edwin Maher waved his eccentric collection of pointers across primitive-looking maps.2 Now I can obtain weather updates at whim, thanks to my phone and that great gift to weather nerds: the Bureau of Meteorology website.
You can get lost for hours in this site’s splendours. It offers seven-day forecasts; a UV index; tide predictions; current warnings and observations from around the city: temperature, rain, Dew Point, relative humidity, atmospheric pressure, wind speeds.
You can see the weather via rain radars: flickering, pixilated, lurid blobs, moving stealthily across a map. You can see the weather via satellite images: great wisps of cloud draped like scarves across the nation. View them in infrared greyscale. No, too drab. Try infrared, Zehr enhanced—a false-colour infrared image emphasising cold temperatures commonly associated with tropical cyclones and thunderstorms. Now that’s natty.
You can read the forecast for Antarctica. Or the Cocos Islands. You can check out space weather. (Low to moderate solar flare activity. Geomagnetic conditions at quiet levels.) You can study water storage levels, sea temperatures, climate change data and coral bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef. The bureau’s website had more than 47.6 billion hits in 2012–13—a 46 per cent increase on the year before. It’s one of Australia’s top twenty most visited sites and charges for banner ads.
If you’re bored with the BOM site, you’re surely bored with life, but there are many more online destinations for the weather freak. Weatherzone, owned (mostly) by Fairfax Media, is the poor relation aesthetically but has some choice discussion forums. Recent participants included Rainheart, Loopy Radar, Cloud Gazer, Weather Nerd, Rainbow Spirit, stormy girl, Raindammit, snowbaby and Nature’s Fury.
Hot topics included the 1893 Brisbane floods; a satellite picture of storm activity over Australia (‘should bring the storm buffs out of hiding’); a monsoon trough in the north-east Indian Ocean; an ABC news report that wrongly described a dust devil as a ‘mini-tornado’; and the November storm season (‘a cracker’).
Other local sites include Sky Weather, Seabreeze, Elders Weather, the Australian Weather Forum, the Weather Chaser and Extreme Storms, which has great photos and the lofty aim of promoting ‘storm and significant weather discussion across Australia and worldwide’. My favourite international site—for sheer brio and simplicity of mission—is Isitraining.in/ which ‘serves for nothing but saying whether or not it’s raining in any given city at this very moment’. So, Paris? No. Beijing? No. Wellington? Of course.
Then there are the phone apps. Weatherzone, Pocket Weather, Swackett, Weather Flow, Be Weather 10 and so on. Get a forecast tailored to your current location. Strong winds are imminent. Should you stay or go?
All this information, I’m sure, is making us more demanding. A decade ago I wouldn’t have dreamt of trying to find out what the weather would be like in ten days’ time. But not so long ago I sat at a friend’s house in Dublin, in pouring rain, glued to a BBC website that declared it would be sunny and 28 °C in Rome (where I was heading), ten days hence.
Still, why read a forecast when you can make your own? At my local Australian Geographic shop, home weather stations fill five shelves. Choices include the Oregon Professional ($799.95), with a 300-metre transmission range and room for three years of data logging; a cheaper version (‘ideal for weather enthusiasts’) at just $499.95; the La Crosse Weather Station and the Weather Station Digital Photo Frame and Barometer in One. These kinds of wireless, ultra-local gadgets use sensors to measure things such as wind speed and direction, temperature, humidity, rainfall and barometric pressure. The readings, which may cover an area of 100–300 metres, are transmitted to a remote display that can be read inside the house or transferred to your computer.
‘Do you sell many of these?’ I ask the young guy behind the counter.
‘Who buys them?’
‘All sorts of people,’ he says in the tone of someone dealing with a halfwit. ‘People like weather.’
We are the weather makers, as Tim Flannery has written. And in my darker moments I have a vision of us all sitting before screens in air-conditioned rooms, churning through electricity as we monitor the conditions outside.
Certain groups—farmers, fishermen, anyone working outdoors, really—have always obsessed about the weather. It shaped their livelihood. It could make or break them. In Herodotus’s The Histories (written in the fifth century BC), the weather is a constant motif: droughts, intolerable cold, violent thunder, lethal desert winds.
As the impact of climate change bites here—with more heatwaves, fires and floods—the bureau’s forecasting acumen and early warnings will be even more vital. But does the average city-dweller’s interest in weather minutiae sometimes border on mild hysteria? (During those nine hot days of 30 °C and above, my frequent checking of the weather forecast seemed to add to my feelings of oppression.) Are we seeking short-term control—a forensic level of knowledge about wind chill, speed and gust—to compensate for feelings of powerlessness about the bigger picture?
It’s been pissing for weeks now, the drain’s overflowing
and the sparrows don’t know if they’re coming or going.
—Emily Hinshelwood, ‘A Moment of Your Time’
Tattered clouds. Sunburnt countries. Summer days. Poets love weather and the bureau’s annual report is a surprisingly poetic read. Greenhouse gas levels, for instance, are measured in Tasmania at a place called Cape Grim. When ice crystals drop through a cloud, they create a phenomenon known as a fallstreak hole. There are photos, too, of sublime beauty: an aurora above water, shimmering purple, gold and orange; a roll cloud unfurling like a wad of cotton wool pulled from an ear.
One of the best things in the report is the National Weather Event Summary: a sort of state-by-state weather highlights. In 2012–13 a hailstone as big as a cricket ball was seen in Tamworth and wind gusts reached 148 kilometres per hour on Lord Howe Island. Snow came for the first time in a century to the South Australian town of Hallett while Alice Springs had seventeen days in a row above 40 °C. A new January temperature record of 49 °C was set in Birdsville. A wave rider buoy at Tasmania’s Cape Sorell reported a twenty-metre wave. And at Hobart’s Mount Wellington an apparent tornado turned out to be funnel clouds.
In the same year the bureau issued 406,757 forecasts and 17,728 warnings for hazardous weather and ocean conditions. Forecasts are becoming more accurate. Today’s seven-day forecast is as good as the four-day one was fourteen years ago, says Alasdair Hainsworth, the bureau’s assistant director of weather services. And being able to predict, say, where and when a cyclone will cross the Australian mainland to within half an hour and 90 kilometres of accuracy ‘gives the emergency services a huge amount of confidence’.
So how does the bureau forecast weather today? First, by collecting observations—from ground and sea level, through the atmosphere, into the stratosphere and out to space. They come from satellites, radars, weather stations, weather balloons, ships, buoys, aircraft, wave data platforms and even people.
The bureau has fifty-five staffed meteorological stations, 674 automatic weather stations, sixty-three weather watch radars, eight wind profiler stations, 7012 rainfall stations, three ozone profiler facilities and ten solar and terrestrial radiation monitoring sites. There are around three hundred paid rainfall observers and 6100 volunteers. (One farming family has been observing and recording rainfall on its Flinders Ranges property since the late 1880s.)
Millions of observations of current weather (known as the initial conditions) are then fed into a massive supercomputer called Ngamai.4 It uses numerical modelling—a series of mathematical equations that simulate the behaviour of the atmosphere and oceans—to calculate future weather conditions. Greater accuracy of forecasts is due chiefly to advances in observing weather—especially through satellites—and the enormous growth in computing power.
Geo-stationary satellites float 36,000 kilometres above the equator, orbiting the Earth once a day in perfect synchronicity with a particular place on it. Polar satellites orbit the planet every 100 minutes, around 1000 kilometres above its surface. Sensors on the latter, says Hainsworth, detect such things as visible light, temperatures and relative humidity at various layers in the atmosphere. Rather than obtaining mere photos of things (as they once did), they are gathering hard data. ‘It requires enormous computing power to handle this amount of data,’ he explains.
The bureau is housed in a modern, beige cube at the Docklands end of Melbourne’s Collins Street. The ground floor café is called Summit and there’s a fantastic wall mural of plump, god-like creatures frolicking amid clouds. For security reasons, I’m not allowed to gawk at Ngamai. But I can meet Dr Howard Jacobs, an animated polymath whose passion is MetEye, a kind of Google maps for weather launched on the bureau’s site in June.
Jacobs has a doctorate in chemistry and drug design and is finishing his fifth Masters degree (this one in intellectual property law). As project manager for the Next Generation Forecast and Warning System, he manages the rollout of the bureau’s upgraded forecasting system and helped develop MetEye, an interactive map viewer that aims to offer a seven-day forecast for every six square kilometres of Australia. ‘If you do the maths, that’s a couple of billion forecasts,’ he says delightedly.
A youthful, bespectacled man, Jacobs calls up MetEye on his desktop screen and shows me what it can do. As we click and watch, he mentions a journal article that noted Australians had searched more often for ‘weather’ online than the word ‘sex’ in recent years. The article, by Scott B. Power and François Delage, also reports that Australians searched much more for ‘weather’ than for the words ‘football’, ‘beer’ and ‘religion’.5 It’s the same, apparently, in Britain, the United States, Canada and New Zealand.
MetEye’s interactive maps contain a trove of forecast information. You can enter your precise location and find the next week’s top temperatures—at three-hour intervals. You can overlay maps with brightly coloured rain radar images, or satellite images of cloud cover, or sea surface temperatures, or tropical cyclone tracks. You can see rainfall in the last ten minutes. You can watch the path, in real time, of a cyclone.
The geographical scale of the forecasts is as intimate or grand as you want. After examining your suburb, you can zoom out and see top temperatures across Australia. They’re updated every five to nine minutes. (Maps for the Northern Territory, however, are still being developed.)
Jacobs’ erudition and passion shame my lingering scepticism about the need for quite so many bells and whistles. MetEye is about empowering people, he says, by ‘converting data to knowledge’. And most of us are right-brained, so we can absorb a lot more information visually than through text. He marvels at the groups that are using MetEye: from kite flyers, vignerons and dune buggy enthusiasts to those wanting to move ice-cream around the country.
Why is there such an appetite for this sort of online weather news? I ask him. People like to plan ahead, he says. We’re more mobile and there’s a ‘generational expectation’ of this level of detailed, interactive information. And more people are now exposed to greater risk, he says, whether on coastal fringes or in a city like Brisbane, built on a floodplain. They need to get weather warnings as quickly as possible.
I have the feeling that Jacobs could talk for hours, if not days, about the weather. His phone rings and a female voice at the other end says he’s meant to be at a meeting. He tells her he’s tied up and continues talking. Ten minutes later, the phone rings again. This time, it seems he has been summoned.
As we head to the lift, I can’t resist asking Jacobs if he’s a weather nerd out of work hours. Does he spend weekends and evenings monitoring the latest data on rainfall or wind chill?
‘Oh no, not at all,’ he laughs. ‘There are too many other things to do.’
Outside it’s a dreary, grey afternoon but as I head to the train station it strikes me that there’s something almost miraculous about today’s weather forecasting capacity. We may not know our own fate in seven days time but we do now know if it will rain.
There is a whirlwind in southern Morocco … against which the fellahin defend themselves with knives.
—Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient
Climate change means more extreme weather: tropical cyclones, droughts, heatwaves, floods, fires, thunderstorms, hail. This means more work for forecasters. Between 1997 and 2011 the number of severe weather warnings issued by the bureau grew ninefold.6
When Hainsworth began in the job, thirty years ago, he says forecasters were advised not to predict record temperatures because of their rarity. Today meteorologists are forecasting records on a ‘reasonably regular basis’. The media then picks up on this, ‘which puts forecasters under enormous pressure’. And because forecasts are becoming more accurate, ‘the community’s expectations are much higher than they were even ten to fifteen years ago’.
Over the last decade ‘Australia has lurched from record drought to record floods and now to record heat waves’, the bureau told the 2013 Senate inquiry into extreme weather events. ‘The intensity of each of these events is unprecedented. That they should occur in series within the space of a decade is remarkable.’ Global warming, it says, is altering the dynamics of the atmosphere, oceans and land. Fire seasons are getting longer. Rates of sea-level rise in northern Australia are some of the world’s highest.
Part of the bureau’s job is to maintain Australia’s climate record. This is a vital task. In these backward times, facts about our climate and how it’s changing have never been more necessary. The bureau also provides warnings and specialised forecasts to the aviation, mining, energy, agriculture and defence industries.7 But an independent review by businesswoman Chloe Munro, released in June 2012, found the bureau was stretched to the limits of its capacity during long-running or simultaneous extreme weather events. It had more than 1700 staff but fewer than 100 front-line meteorologists. During natural disasters it was forced to call in recently retired staff and temporary contractors to manage the workload.
The Munro report caused an outcry. In response, the previous federal government committed $58.5 million over four years in extra funding to the bureau. This will allow it to increase the number of front-line forecasting staff and modernise storm surge and flood forecasting systems. It will also help establish a National Centre for Extreme Weather to meet peak demand during severe weather events.
In 2012–13 the bureau employed 1737 staff (a reduction of sixteen on the previous year). The extra funding will reportedly allow for the hiring of forty-two more meteorologists and twenty-three more hydrologists. Still, Monash University’s Neville Nicholls, a professor in the School of Geography and Environmental Science, says this extra money should be considered against a backdrop of decades of bipartisan reductions in real funding to the bureau.
‘Every decade or so a science minister (or her equivalent) recognises the deleterious effect of these continuing cuts and establishes a review,’ he tells me. ‘The review duly … recommends increased funding. The government provides some of this funding and receives media headlines. The bureau hires some extra staff or buys a few new radars—but the underlying annual cuts [often called ‘efficiency dividends’] continue. So the rest of the bureau (i.e. the areas not directly supported through the ‘new’ funding) face continued demands for ‘savings’.
These ‘savings’ lead to a decline in the overall capability of the bureau. (Or they would, if it were not for the improvements in forecasting science and the remarkable professionalism of staff). But they certainly mean the bureau is less effective than it could be in saving lives and avoiding property damage.
Nicholls, who worked as a bureau meteorologist for thirty-five years, welcomes the government response to the Munro review. But he says providing adequate and expanded funding to the bureau (i.e. guaranteed in real terms) would be a simple, cheap way of adapting to climate change. Better, more timely flash flood forecasts, improved heatwave alerts and bushfire warnings—these things can save lives.
We now know more about the weather than at any time before. We have Ngamai, MetEye, satellites, websites, radars, observers, apps and gadgets galore. But are our leaders fighting a whirlwind with knives? The Abbott government has swapped a carbon tax for a lame-duck direct action plan. And it didn’t even send our environment minister to the last global climate change conference.
‘Listen to th’ wind wutherin’ round the house,’ she said. ‘You could bare stand up on the moor if you was out on it tonight.’
Mary did not know what ‘wutherin’ meant until she listened, and then she understood. It must mean that hollow shuddering sort of roar which rushed round and round the house as if the giant no one could see were buffeting it and beating at the walls and windows to try to break in.
—Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden
A giant is toying with my house. Windows rattle. Eaves creak. Trees and bushes do Zumba moves in the garden. The night is bright, with lots of moon, and when I wake at one o’clock to go to the toilet, I see something huge and ghostly slumped in the back yard. Our neighbours’ massive, white-barked, lemon-scented gum has snapped off at the base, toppling across our land and into the yard beyond. It lies there like a misplaced house. I didn’t even hear it go. I walk out into the rebellious garden to check I’m not dreaming and quickly tot up a list of trashed things—two fences, a shed, a clothesline, our red flowering gum, part of our big old lemon tree. Then I creep back to bed.
In the morning I’m dazzled by the fallen tree’s size and whiteness. It’s about six metres high on its side, with thick, creamy branches like whale bones. We inspect the damage: the shed is cactus, Dave’s longboard smashed in two. Our lemon tree—cut to the bone nine months ago after a vicious bout of gall wasp—had just started sprouting new growth. I’d watched and waited for months, checking bare boughs for signs of life. Now red-green shoots hang from broken branches.
I’m poking amid torn sheets of shed metal, looking at more squashed things (totem tennis set, paint tins), when I suddenly remember the pigeon. I’d come face to face with it a few weeks ago, when I went to get the mower out of the shed. At first I thought it was a ceramic ornament, mysteriously placed on top of a shelf. It had a perfectly painted round eye and smooth, grey sides. Then the eye had moved. I noticed the nest it was sitting on, built into a pile of netting.
I saw the pigeon often after that day and would marvel at its patience—or blind instinct—as it sat motionless, warming eggs. ‘Hello pigeon,’ I’d say, as I brushed past the shelf, looking for clippers or the ladder.
Now the shelf is buried in bits of roof. I don’t look too closely but Dave says he saw a bent wing.
Our friends three doors down say they were huddled in bed, listening to the wind, when they heard the gum fall. It was really fast. A loud crack, then a thud. The wind kept blowing the next day too. I don’t think it was record-breaking, just annoying. I didn’t bother checking the bureau’s site. I knew the forecast was crap and there was loads to do.
- Gillard, who worked for Victoria Police, was interviewed in a 2012 Weekly Times article on our appetite for weather websites. She checked often for rain, hence her fondness for radars.
- Maher, a Melbourne cult figure in the 1980s and 1990s, is a journalist who went on to anchor an influential English-language news program in China. According to Wikipedia, there are plans to make a Hollywood film about his life.
- Hinshelwood, a Welsh poet, has been walking across Wales asking every person she meets three questions about climate change. This poem contains some of their responses.
- Ngamai means ‘sun’ in the Wurundjeri language of Woi wurrung.
- Scott B. Power and François Delage, ‘Summer Peak, Winter Minimum, and Growth in the Demand for Online Weather Services in Australia’, Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 92 (2011), pp. 1275–7.
- Bridie Smith, ‘Forecasters face heavy weather’, Age, 9 June 2012.
- A 24/7 weather forecasting unit is embedded with the army in Bungendore, NSW.