Weather / climate (Canadian in Australia series)

Unlike most of these entries, this one really has nothing to do with politics or culture – but is worth noting for a Canadian (or anyone else, really) planning travel or a move to Australia.  The typical weather in Sydney is, on average, wonderful.  It’s kind of like Toronto weather, but with warmer winters.  An average day will include at least some rainfall (I often joke that when the forecast says “5% chance of rain” it means “100% chance it will rain 5% of the time” … the forecast never predicts anything lower than 5%).  Weather systems move through fast – clouds blow over the city so quickly that the changes are visible, and it’s not uncommon to be walking in the city on a hot summer day and all of a sudden be drenched by an unexpected downpour.  One of my more comical moments in Sydney was while I was walking to the Entertainment Quarter for a show.  I was getting rained on and looked all around me to notice that it was bright and sunny everywhere except a two-block radius around me – it was reminiscent of a Peanuts cartoon.

Sydney Tower just before the rain

The rest of the country is so geographically diverse that each state basically has its own climate.  The North has two seasons – wet and dry.  The Wet isn’t as bad as it seems – yes it’s a monsoon system, but it basically rains for a few hours almost every afternoon, leaving the rest of the day to enjoy the sun.  The centre gets hot – very hot – with a typical summer day being in the high 30s or low 40s … but it’s a desert so it’s a dry heat, which makes a noticeable difference.  The South and Southwest parts of the country have weather comparable to Sydney’s, but a little cooler.  Melbourne and the area around it is renowned as having “four seasons in a day,” and people are jokingly advised “if you don’t like the weather… wait a minute.”  It goes from sunny to rainy and from hot to cold very quickly and very unpredictably – dressing in layers is essential.


Darwin in The Wet

The thing that makes Australian climate unusual though is its extremes.  As an example, in early February Sydney had an extreme heatwave where there were two solid days of 42 degree Celsius weather – not counting the humidity.  Without a working air conditioner (don’t get me started on my landlord), this was incredibly uncomfortable – I actually went to a nightclub to cool off at one point, it was seriously cooler inside the busy club than it was outside on the street.  Interestingly, while the temperature was still 42 past midnight, by early afternoon the next day it had gone down to 18 degrees!  It was a welcome break, but just goes to show how Australian weather doesn’t do ‘moderate.’  (Consider that a 24 Celsius drop in temperature is equivalent to a change from “nice summer day” to “snowing” in Toronto).

The other major problem is that Australian buildings are not built for year-round weather, and most are very poorly insulated if they’re insulated at all.  Most buildings built more than 10 years ago (with the exception of very large highrises) don’t usually even have central (ducted) heating or cooling.  This means apartment (and businesses) are really hot in the summer, and really cool in the winter. Sydney winters rarely go below 6 or 7 Celsius overnight, but even at 15 it feels very cold.  Window heaters and space heaters make it tolerable (although unbearably dry), but it’s still unpleasant – and it’s often raining so you don’t want to leave the house.  It’s nothing compared to -10 and icy during the day time, but it’s still unpleasant, especially for someone like me who doesn’t like anything below 20!  Australians seem to agree – in the summer, pubs are packed on weeknights until late hours, but go out on a Tuesday in July and they’re barren – most people just want to curl up under the blankets and stay warm!

Of course, in the short time that I spent in Australia, the whole Eastern part of the country (from Queensland to Victoria, with the exception of the Sydney area, thankfully) had intermittent and sometimes extreme flooding (I was scheduled to be in Brisbane a few days after the worst of its floods – I rescheduled to later in the year).  Both East and West coasts got hit by cyclones (the Southern version of a hurricane); I narrowly avoided one when I was in Perth, thankfully it was downgraded at the last minute before it hit the coast.  Parts of Western Australia were constantly under bushfire threats, or actually on fire – interestingly, when I visited in 2009 Victoria was dealing with very severe bushfires and an extended (decade-long) drought, only to have severe flooding by the time I returned in late 2010.  And no Australian summer would be complete without at least part of the country dealing with plagues of locusts – I’m not even kidding.  This year it was South Australia’s turn to have more of them than they can handle (they exist across the country), but it seemed to be managed well.

Locust trapped in a shop door

The final climate-related item that most people really don’t grasp about Australia is the UV.  There is very little ozone layer remaining over Australia, especially in the South, since the biggest parts of the ozone hole are above Antarctica.  For the first three months I was in Sydney, I can’t think of one day where the UV index wasn’t “Extreme” – that is, above 10.0.  When I actually looked at the numbers, it was very common for the measurement to be around 13.0.  Accordingly, the best way to spot a tourist in Australia is to look for the sunburn.  That’s not to say Australians don’t get sunburnt – just that they’ve learned over the years to wear sunblock, to stay out of the sun, and to cover up.  (This doesn’t stop the government from carrying out extensive ad campaigns discouraging people even from getting a tan – the “skin cells in trauma” ads are notorious).   I managed to avoid getting too many burns – my worst was when I spent a rainy day at Sydney Olympic Park and forgot to put on sunblock; the UV is so strong it comes through the clouds quite easily.  Where a summer afternoon walk through the city in Toronto wouldn’t even give someone a tan, the same activity in Sydney would likely yield a pretty bad sunburn.  Most people just can’t grasp it – I came to accept it as normal.

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