It's the same the world over; you know you're in trouble when it's raining but the birds are out and about. They know, you see. It's not going to stop in the foreseeable future and they've got to get out and about otherwise they'll starve. A bad sign. It's a particularly bad sign here because the weather often changes quite quickly. If it's sunny, dramatic dark can bubble up seemingly out of nowhere; or, you can be struggling oppressively under low grey-whiteout and suddenly there's bright blue behind thin, fast-moving rain cloud. It's the tropics, innit?
Since I got back to Brisbane at the end of August the weather pattern has been as follows:
10 days mainly full sun, maybe with the odd bit of cotton wool
20 days some cloud, some sun
6 days overcast for the most part
11 days significant rain amounts or a full day's worth
Some cloud/some sun is overwhelmingly the most common diurnal weather pattern. So let's dispense with the myth of 'it's usually hot and sunny in Australia' once and for all. Although the UK has a reputation here for having fairly dismal, unpredictable weather, it seldom gets heavy downpours that last even a whole day. Here, following a severe storm that hit the southern suburbs of Brisbane at 1am last Friday morning, we have had near-constant rain ever since (it is now mid-afternoon on Sunday). I sit here clad in many layers and winter boots: it is 17 degrees outside and probably colder in. I long for sun.
We've had incessant rain bouts lasting 36 or 48-hours on a few occasions since January. And I have confidently planned a number of trips in anticipation of sunshine but been surprised. We got soaked atop Mount Ngungun in the Glasshouse Mountains in April and drenched climbing Mount Cordeaux in the Main Range in October; we had to abandon a trip to look at the stars in Charleville in July because of thick cloud and, as it turned out, rain; and our whale-watching tour in September only narrowly avoided being a washout because the rain arrived 48 hours later than predicted.
This is a continent with an unforgiving climate and the weather effects are frequently devastating: floods, drought, cyclones, tornadoes, giant hailstones, violent electric storms, land gales – none of these is unusual (see australiasevereweather.com). Australians seem to take it all on the chin. You have to feel for the family in Marysville, Victoria, who, having recently finished rebuilding their home 19 months after the 'Black Saturday' bush fires of February 2009, saw it soaked in early September in the state's worse floods for nearly 20 years. Yet Steve Guilfoyle still had a smile for ABC's reporter Mary Gearin:
'We've had the fires; now we've got the floods. What's next? You know, bring it on. And that's the attitude, you know, just throw what you can at me.'
On 4 October the Courier Mail warned Queenslanders to expect more cyclones, tropical storms and a wetter Wet than usual. (Oh good.) The Australian Government Bureau of Meteorology releases an annual forecast for the cyclone season to come (December to April), and severe weather forecaster Tony Auden had said, presumably rather sternly, that 'ocean patterns, including the La Niña phase, were likely to produce a wetter-than-average summer and above-average cyclone activity.' Brisbane's worst floods last century, in January 1974, occurred during a La Niña phase.
The Australian landmass sits at latitudes where a subtropical belt of high pressure results in dry, sinking air and clear skies. Country rainfall tends to be low and erratic, while Queensland coastal regions are 'watered' by moisture in weather systems coming in from the Coral Sea. In addition, Australia is periodically affected by the El Niño/La Niña Southern Oscillation (ENSO). The Pacific is such a vast expanse of ocean at equatorial latitudes that the interaction of its currents with the atmosphere produces variations in air pressure affecting weather over land on either side of the ocean for up to three years, and sometimes longer.
Essentially, variability of both warm and cold currents off the west coast of South America affects surface water temperatures and air pressure across the ocean. During an El Niño phase, the seas around northern and eastern Australia are cooler than usual, the Pacific trade winds are weaker and less moisture moves over the continent. In a La Niña phase, stronger than usual trade winds and warmer sea temperatures bring more rainfall than usual, to eastern Australia especially.
Since we arrived in Brisbane, we've been told repeatedly how much the region needs the rain after so many years of drought and water restriction. In fact, the drought ended before we got here - which is why everything looked so lush instead of parched - and now it seems we're headed for a summer much the same as the last one. My daughters arrive in less than two weeks, however, and they won't be happy. It's been chilly and rainy in the UK recently and they have high hopes for Queensland. Is La Niña going to spoil our fun?
Eventually on this wet Sunday we had to venture out to blow the cobwebs away. The palms and Norfolk Island Pines were getting a buffeting at Cleveland Point.
And the pelicans gave up on an afternoon at the coast
Now it's Monday morning. It downpoured all night. October rainfall records for SEQ (Southeast Queensland) are tumbling faster than water is emptying from the sky.