Australia is the world’s largest island – and smallest continent. From north to south, the Australian mainland stretches over 3,700 km and from east to the west it’s about 4,000 km across, making Australia the world’s sixth largest country after Russia, Canada, China, USA and Brazil. Australia is a large country to explore!
In addition to the mainland itself, Australia also consists of the large island of Tasmania that measures 300-360 km from coast to coast and is located 240 km south of the mainland’s south-eastern corner, as well as several smaller islands. The closest neighbouring countries are Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and East-Timor located north of the mainland, farther to the southeast lies New Zealand and to the northeast in the Pacific Ocean we find the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and New Caledonia.
Terrain and mountain tops
The continental plate under Indonesia and Australia tore away from Antarctica around 96 million years ago and slowly began to move northwards (even at present the Australian mainland moves north at a speed of about 6-7 cm per year). At the end of the last ice age, approximately 8,000 years ago, the world’s glaciers and polar ice caps started melting making sea levels rise. This resulted in northern Australia over several millennia to gradually separate from Indonesia, and Tasmania to separate from the rest of the Australian mainland.
Unlike most of the northern hemisphere that was covered with glaciers during the last ice age, Australia has neither had major volcanic eruptions nor inland ice sheets to add nutrients and minerals to the soil. This has resulted in large parts of Australia’s soil being nutrient-poor, sandy and difficult to cultivate.
Most of Australia’s mainland is low and flat with some exceptions; In the east we find the Eastern Highland and a long mountain range along the coast called Great Dividing Range. In the west is another highland, Western Plateau with slightly lower mountain ranges in the north-western country called Hamersley Ranges and towards the Australian centre lies MacDonnell Ranges. Between the Eastern and Western Highlands is a vast lowland, Central Lowlands, and this is where the country’s largest river system is to be found; The Murray-Darling Basin (named after the two rivers Murray and Darling) and the Lake Eyre Basin area, which covers almost one sixth of the mainland’s surface. Lake Eyre is Australia’s lowest point (16 m below sea level) and during long periods of drought it is a Salt Lake with no or very little water.
The Australian mainland’s highest mountains are in the south-eastern part of the country. Mount Kosciuszko with its 2,228 m is the tallest, then Mount Townsend (2,209 m), Mount Twynam (2,196 m), Rams Head (2,190 m) and Etheridge Ridge (2,180 m) which all lies in the same part of the country (also known as Snowy Mountains or Australian alps).
Mount Meharry in Hamersley Ranges (north-Western Australia) has a peak of 1,249 m and Mount Zeil with its 1,531 m is the highest in MacDonnell Ranges (in the inland around Alice Springs).
Australia’s climate varies enormously from one part to another, but the largest area is either desert or half-desert. Only in the mainland’s southeast and south-west corners there is a reasonably good water supply and a temperate climate (very similar to the climate around the Mediterranean). The northern parts have a tropical climate ranging from tropical rain forest with grasslands and semi-desert the more inland one gets.
Australia’s weather system varies considerably with the seasons and dry periods are not uncommon. In some parts of the country a drought has lasted for several years. Extreme weather conditions are not uncommon, and if you spend a year travelling around Australia you may experience both sand and dust storms, tropical cyclones, heat waves with forest fires, floods, and in winter both frost and snowfall in the southeast.
A large part of the climate fluctuations in Australia are a result of El Niño weather phenomena, a weather system of air flows and ocean streams in the Pacific Ocean that occurs approximately every five years. An alternating of warming and cooling (the latter known as La Niña) enhances local weather changes around the Pacific Ocean, from heat waves and drought to strong low pressures and floods.
Australia’s unique plant and animal life is a result of evolution, forcing life to make the most out of difficult conditions like a harsh and dry climate combined with a very nutrient-poor soil.
Sitting in my Sydney apartment writing this in January 2013, it has been a few days since the city suffered its hottest day ever measured, with a temperature of 45.7°C. At the same time, I remember how I had to scrape frost from the windshield of my car in July 2011 (in the middle of the Australian winter) when I lived and worked in Canberra for half a year. Australia is simply a country with extreme weather experiences.
The Australian summers (from December to March) are often hot and dry, with cooler winds coming in from the sea lowering the temperature at times. In the country’s south-east it is not unusual with forest fires after weeks without rain, the warm and dry air from the inland making it very difficult for the fire brigade to extinguish them. In tropical areas, summers are often wet with humid winds from Indonesia bringing thunderstorms, storms and plenty of rain during the wet season from October to April. In north, this is followed by dry winter seasons with milder temperatures and longer periods of clear weather.
In north-eastern Australia (furthest north of Queensland) we find the opposite of a desert climate. A combination of highlands and a proximity to the tropics leads to occasionally downpours and lush rainforests. Some Australian visitors are surprised to hear that it snows in the southeast mountains in winter. You will find ski resorts only a few hours’ drive from Sydney and Melbourne.
Rain and water in the landscape
Since most of Australia’s inland is very dry, the low to non-existent precipitation results in existing few riverbeds and lakes to be dry between rainfalls. Some inland rives get their water from tropical regions in the north and northeast, meaning that precipitation during the wet season in the northern part of the country can make desert and arid areas hundreds of miles away flourish.
The catchment area of the Great Artesian Basin lies in north-eastern Australia. Although dry on the surface it contains large amounts of groundwater. Many local communities get their drinking water from the groundwater and it’s also being used for agriculture. Unfortunately, this water supply cannot sustain Australia’s large land areas, the total outtake is greater than the input which is why water usage is becoming an increasingly delicate political issue in rural Australia.
The water supply decreased during several long dry periods at the beginning of the 2000s. Around the largest cities there are dams to secure the water supply for people in the cities during periods without large rainfalls and there are also desalination plants that can extract drinking water out of seawater.
Weather in Australia’s States
Australian Capital Territory
Canberra and its surrounding area have an altitude of 650 m, located 150 km from the coast. Australian Capital Territory has unlike coastal cities in Australia not a mild climate but an inland climate. Canberra is known for hot, dry summers and very (according to Australian standards) cold winters with fog and frost. Snow often falls on the mountain tops around the city in winter. The temperature in winter (June-July) is around 0-10°C and in summer (January-February) 15-30°C, although extremely hot summer days can reach temperatures of 40°C.
New South Wales
Most of the inland in New South Wales has a very dry climate being half-desert or desert, and several tourists are traveling to Outback New South Wales to experience this. Along the east coast, however, the climate is quite different; Furthest north the climate is moist with a mixture of Queensland’s tropical climate and the south’s drier and more temperate Mediterranean climate. In the southeast Mountain areas (region Snowy Mountains), the weather is cool and cold all year round, with snowfall in winter.
In the southern part of the state we find distinct seasons with cool and relatively cold winters and dry, hot summers. In coastal areas it is more common with rainy days, and thanks to the temperate climate this is where we find most of the population.
The weather in Sydney reminds a bit of Canberra’s weather, with temperatures of 8-17°C in winter and on an average summer day the temperature is ranging from 18-26°C from night to day (but it’s not uncommon to get temperatures above 35 degrees on really hot summer days). But Sydney is relatively temperate, and the further northwest you travel the state summertime, the hotter it gets.
Australia’s largest inland desert is found in north-western Victorian where the climate is dry and hot most parts of the year. The closer to the coast one gets, the cooler and milder the climate becomes. On coastal areas and in the highlands around the mountain range Great Dividing Range in central parts of Victoria, the climate is relatively cool.
Victoria is the coldest state on the Australian mainland with coastal areas around Melbourne having much milder seasons than the inland’s. On a weather point, Melbourne is an interesting city; One can experience very different weathers on one and a same day depending on the winds. In a playful manner people living in Melbourne describe the city’s weather like “four seasons in one day”.
On a typical winter day in Melbourne the temperature is 6-7°C at night, rising to about 15°C in the day. During summer months, the corresponding temperatures are 14-15°C and 25-26°C. Melbourne’s summers are, however, notorious for having some very hot days, and it’s not uncommon with temperatures up over 40°C.
Queensland is a gigantic state, and has, due to its size, several large weather zones. In the western inland, the climate is dry, changing to desert. In the north, the climate is dominated by monsoons and is both humid and warm, and along the east coast the weather is more temperate.
Furthest north and along the coasts the summers are hot and humid, and in the highlands the climate is somewhat cooler. In the inland, the summers are hot and dry, and the farther south you get in Outback Queensland, the cooler the winter days are.
In general, one might say that Queensland only has two seasons; A winter season with warm but not too hot temperatures and less precipitation, followed by a summer period with hot, humid summer days and plenty of rain (except in the inland desert of course).
A few examples; In the southeast corner of the state is the capital city of Brisbane, where the temperature in winter varies between 10°C in night-time to 22°C in daytime. In summer, the corresponding average temperatures are 21°C and 30°C. Cairns is also located on the coast but in the northern tropics, with corresponding winter temperatures lying between 17-26°C, and summer temperatures between 23-31°C. An average temperature of 31°C might not sound high, but with a high humidity it can be a bit of a challenge for travellers.
South Australia’s south coast has a Mediterranean climate with relatively cool and humid winters and hot dry summers. Further north, the climate shifts to being drier and desert-like, just as in southern Northern Territory (see below). The highest temperature ever recorded in Australia was measured in the northern part of the state in 1960 in Oodnadatta, with a high of 50.7°C. Luckily, such high temperatures are unusual.
The state’s capital Adelaide has a climate similar to Mediterranean countries, with average winter temperatures ranging from 8°C at night to 16°C in the day, and corresponding summer temperatures lies between 9-29°C. The proximity to the sea cools the city down, but during hot summer days temperature still sore and it is not unusual with temperatures of over 35°C in the shade.
The northernmost part is dominated by two weather seasons: A wet season lasting November to April, and a dry season lasting from May to October. During the dry winter, most days are warm, sunny and the air humidity is low and comfortable. Winter in the north Northern Territory is quite pleasant with lowest temperatures around 15°C. The wet season, however, is completely different; Monsoon rains and tropical cyclones sweeping across the country. Spectacular flashes can sometimes be seen rain from thunderstorms pouring down with rain. The humidity is high and the watercourse in northern National Parks often overflows.
Darwin’s winter is mild, with average temperatures of 20°C at night and up to 30°C daytime. Summer is hot and humid, with corresponding temperatures of 25°C at night to around 30-35°C during daytime. Despite low fluctuations in temperature the summer is still perceived as tuff and hot due to high humidity caused by the wet season.
The centre of the country (known as the Red Centre) has a dry desert climate with less than 250 mm precipitation per year on average, the rain in the north never succeed to get that far south to put an end to the desert drought. Alice Springs is a city in the middle of the desert with a varied weather, cooler winters and very hot summers. Winter nights temperatures lies between 10-15°C, and winter days has pleasant temperature around 25°C. In summer, however, it is very hot with night and day temperatures regularly between 30-40°C.
About 80% of Western Australia is desert or semi-desert, just like Australia’s other states in the inland regions. All inland regions experience little precipitation (and when it rains, it is a downpour associated with the coastal summer cyclones). In the far north of Western Australia, the climate becomes tropical and (just like northern parts of Northern Territory) the summers are both hot and humid with rich monsoon rains across the mountainous areas and highlands in the Kimberley region.
Unfortunately, the Indian Ocean’s waters west of Australia are quite cold, leading to low water evaporation resulting in little rain over the region’s mainland. There is a slightly higher precipitation in the state’s south-west corner where the climate is less desert and more like southernmost Europe. Western Australia’s capital Perth has a warm Mediterranean climate all year round, with winter temperatures (night and day) varying between 8-18°C and summer temperatures around 31°C daytime. Summer nights are pleasant with an average temperature of 18 °C, but the proximity to the desert is a fact, resulting in scorching summer temperatures over 40°C several days a year. Most summer days end with a cool breeze, known as “the Fremantle Doctor,” which sweeps in from the southwest and cools down the city.
Thanks to Tasmania’s proximity to the sea and its southern location the state has a climate with four proper seasons. The inland heights are usually much cooler than coastal areas, summer temperatures will rarely get above 20-25°C. The highest inland precipitation occurs in winter between June and July, especially on the western coast where the western winds brings in a lot of rain from the outer seas. Although it only rains about a third as much in summer as in winter, Tasmania still lack large areas of desert and semi-desert like Australia’s other states.
In Tasmania’s capital Hobart, night to day temperatures lies between 5- 12°C on a typical winter day, and in summer the corresponding temperatures are 12-22°C.
Natural disasters and extreme weather conditions in Australia
Several forest fires (bush fires) occur in Australia every summer, and its warm climate combined with long drought periods in dense forest areas often creates perfect conditions for devastating fires. It gets bad when the shrub layer, the lower vegetation, has a good growth period for a few years followed by several months of drought leaving it dry and easily ignited by lightning or different human factors. Australia’s most devastating forest fires can be described as firestorms. On the 7th of February 2009 (known as “Black Saturday”) 173 people died in a system of 400 fires (120 people died in a single firestorm) in the forested countryside 2-3 hours northeast of Melbourne despite the fire brigade’s valiant attempts to stop it.
There are several areas that receive large amounts of rain per year in Queensland, especially the highlands southwest of Cairns. An extreme low pressure can during unfortunate conditions sweep in from the ocean to dump dangerously large volumes of rain along the Great Dividing Range and the highlands closest to the coast. In central and eastern Queensland, an area of double the size of Sweden was put under water by huge floods in December and January 2010-2011. Buildings and vehicles were swept off by floods and 38 people perished in the water masses. It has been estimated that the total bill for these floods to be around AUS 30 billion.
Along the coast between Broome and Exmouth in north-western Australia, cyclones are sometimes formed (on average 5-6 times every summer) sweeping in across the country. A cyclone is a major storm system bringing strong winds and a lot of rain that can lead to destroyed buildings and local floods. Wind forces around 350km/h was measured during a cyclone in 2006, and the most damaging storms have led to multiple deaths (in 1974, 71 people perished when Cyclone Tracy came ashore straight across Darwin) and losses of billions of dollars. In recent years, major weather systems in the north have led to problems in the agriculture sector, such as banana plants and other crops being ruined in these storms.
One morning I woke up at my home in Sydney thinking it was snowing outdoors; The light shining into my bedroom was just like the orange haze I used to see in Sweden when the streetlights shone through dense snowfall. Of course, it wasn’t snowing in Sydney, instead a dust storm was sweeping across the city dumping tons of reddish-brown fine dust from the inland desert areas. Most dust storms are not acute dangerous, but the fine dust particles are unhealthy to inhale. Staying indoors until rain and wind has cleared the air is safest and breathing through a handkerchief is to recommend if one must go outdoors.