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The frequency of frost, which can cause serious losses of agricultural crops, depends on a number of factors. In coastal areas the relatively warm ocean temperatures ameliorate those on land, while distance from the Equator and elevation above sea level are major cooling influences. In addition, variations in topography can lead to local effects such as the accumulation of cold air in frost hollows. Hence frost hazard is greatest in areas which are away from the coast, are at relatively high elevations and have complex terrain which allows cold air drainage down slopes.
Parts of Australia most subject to frost are the eastern uplands from north-eastern Victoria to the western Darling Downs in southern Queensland where there may be more than ten nights a month with readings of 0°C (or under) for three to five months of the year. On Tasmania's Central Plateau similar conditions occur for three to six months of the year. Frosts may occur within a few kilometres of the coasts except in the Northern Territory and most of the north Queensland coasts.
Frosts may occur at any time of the year over most of Tasmania, large areas of the tablelands of New South Wales and much of inland Victoria, particularly the north-east. Frosts start in April and end in October over most of the interior of the continent, and on the highlands of Queensland as far north as the Atherton Plateau. Minimum temperatures below 0°C can be experienced in most of the subtropical interior in June and July.
The median frost period over the continent varies from over 200 days per year in the south-eastern uplands areas south of the Hunter Valley, to none in northern Australia. The annual frost period generally decreases from about 100 days inland to below 50 days towards the coast in the southern regions of the continent, but there is widespread local variation. In Tasmania the frost period exceeds 300 days on the uplands and decreases to 100 days near the coast.
Australia is a dry continent in terms of the water vapour content or humidity of the air, and this element may be compared with evaporation to which it is related. Moisture content can be expressed by a number of parameters, of which the most commonly known is relative humidity. This can be thought of as the relative evaporating power of the air; when the humidity is low, a wet surface, like our skin, can evaporate freely. When it is high, evaporation is retarded. People can feel this as discomfort or even stress as the body's ability to perspire (and hence cool) decreases with increasing relative humidity. The combination of high temperature and high humidity is potentially dangerous for people who are active in such conditions.
The main features of the relative humidity pattern are:
Global (short wave) radiation includes that radiation energy reaching the ground directly from the sun and that received indirectly from the sky, scattered downwards by clouds, dust particles, etc.
A high correlation exists between daily global radiation and daily hours of sunshine. On the north-west coast around Port Hedland, where average daily global radiation is the highest for Australia (640 milliwatt hours), average daily sunshine is also highest, being approximately ten hours. Sunshine is more dependent on variations in cloud coverage than is global radiation, since the latter includes diffuse radiation from the sky as well as direct radiation from the sun. An example is Darwin where, in the dry month of July, sunshine approaches twice that of the wet (cloudy) month of January, but global radiation amounts for the two months are comparable.
Sunshine here refers to bright or direct sunshine. Australia receives relatively large amounts of sunshine although seasonal cloud formations have a notable effect on its spatial and temporal distribution. Cloud cover reduces both incoming solar radiation and outgoing long wave radiation, and thus affects sunshine, air temperature and other climatic elements on the Earth's surface.
Most of the continent receives more than 3,000 hours of sunshine a year, or nearly 70% of the total possible. In central Australia and the mid-west coast of Western Australia, totals slightly in excess of 3,500 hours occur. Totals of less than 1,750 hours occur on the west coast and highlands of Tasmania; this amount is only 40% of the total possible per year (about 4,380 hours).
In southern Australia, the duration of sunshine is greatest about December when the sun is at its highest elevation, and lowest in June when the sun is lowest. In northern Australia, sunshine is generally greatest over the period August to October prior to the wet season, and least over the period January to March during the wet season.
Seasonal changes in cloudiness vary with the distribution of rainfall. In the southern parts of the continent, particularly in the coastal and low-lying areas, the winter months are generally more cloudy than the summer months. This is due to the formation of extensive areas of stratiform cloud and fog during the colder months, when the structure of the lower layers of the atmosphere favours the physical processes resulting in this type of cloud. Particularly strong seasonal variability of cloud cover exists in northern Australia where skies are clouded during the summer wet season and mainly cloudless during the winter dry season. Cloud coverage is greater near coasts and on the windward slopes of the eastern uplands of Australia and less over the dry interior.
The formation of fog depends on the occurrence of favourable meteorological elements - mainly temperature, humidity, wind and cloud cover. The nature of the local terrain is important for the development of fog and there is a tendency for this phenomenon to persist in valleys and hollows. The incidence of fog may vary significantly over distances as short as one kilometre.
Fog in Australia tends to be more common in the south than the north, although parts of the east coastal areas are relatively fog-prone even in the tropics. Incidence is much greater in the colder months, particularly in the eastern uplands. Fog may persist during the day, but rarely until the afternoon over the interior. The highest fog incidence at a capital city is at Canberra which has an average of 47 days per year on which fog occurs, 29 of which are in the period May to August. Brisbane averages 20 days of fog per year. Darwin averages only two days per year, in the months of July and August.
The mid-latitude anticyclones are the chief determinants of Australia's two main prevailing wind streams. In relation to the west-east axes of the anticyclones these streams are easterly to the north and westerly to the south. The cycles of development, motion and decay of low-pressure systems to the north and south of the anticyclones result in diversity of wind-flow patterns. Wind variations are greatest around the coasts where diurnal land and sea-breeze effects are important.
Orography affects the prevailing wind pattern in various ways, such as the channelling of winds through valleys, deflection by mountains and cold air drainage from highland areas. An example of this channelling is the high frequency of north-west winds at Hobart caused by the north-west to south-east orientation of the Derwent River Valley.
Perth is the windiest capital with an average wind speed of 15.6 km/h; Canberra is the least windy with an average wind speed of 5.4 km/h.
The highest wind speeds and wind gusts recorded in Australia have been associated with tropical cyclones. The highest recorded gust was 267 km/h at Learmonth, Western Australia on 22 March 1999 (occurring with Tropical Cyclone Vance); gusts reaching 200 km/h have been recorded on several occasions in northern Australia with cyclone visitations. The highest gusts recorded at Australian capitals were 217 km/h at Darwin and 156 km/h at Perth.
Drought, in general terms, refers to an acute deficit of water supply to meet a specified demand. The best single measure of water availability in Australia is rainfall, although parameters such as evaporation and soil moisture are significant, even dominant in some situations. Demands for water are very diverse, hence the actual declaration of drought conditions for an area will generally also depend on the effects of a naturally occurring water deficit on the principal local industries.
Since the 1860s there have been ten major Australian droughts. Some of these major droughts could be described as periods consisting of a series of dry spells of various lengths, overlapping in time and space, and totalling up to about a decade. The drought periods of 1895-1903 (the so-called 'Federation drought'), 1958-68, 1982-83 and 1991-95 were the most devastating in terms of their extent and effects on primary production. The latter drought resulted in a possible $5b cost to Australia's economy, and $590m in drought relief by the Commonwealth Government. The remaining major droughts occurred in 1864-66 (and 1868), 1880-86, 1888, 1911-16, 1918-20 and 1939-45.
In this same period, several droughts of lesser severity caused significant losses over large areas of some States. They occurred in 1922-23 and 1926-29, 1933-38, 1946-49, 1951-52, 1970-72,1976 and 1997-2000.
South-eastern Australia (New South Wales, southern Queensland, Victoria, Tasmania and the settled parts of South Australia) contains about 75% of the nation's population, and droughts affecting this region have a markedly adverse impact on the economy. There have been nine severe droughts in south-eastern Australia since 1888, and these were encompassed within the major Australian droughts specified above, except for the severe drought in 1972. Drought definitions, and the area of coverage and length of droughts, together with related information, may be obtained from Year Book Australia 1988.
Widespread flood rainfall may occur anywhere in Australia, but it has a higher incidence in the north and in the eastern coastal areas. It is most economically damaging along the shorter streams flowing from the eastern uplands eastward to the seaboard of Queensland and New South Wales. These flood rains are notably destructive in the more densely populated coastal river valleys of New South Wales - the Tweed, Richmond, Clarence, Macleay, Hunter and Nepean-Hawkesbury - all of which experience relatively frequent flooding. Although chiefly caused by summer rains, they may occur in any season.
The great Fitzroy and Burdekin river basins of Queensland receive flood rains during the summer wet seasons. Much of the run-off due to heavy rain in north Queensland west of the eastern uplands flows southward through the normally dry channels of the network of rivers draining the interior lowlands into Lake Eyre. This widespread rain may cause floods over an extensive area, but it soon seeps away or evaporates, occasionally reaching the lake in quantity. The Condamine and other northern tributaries of the Darling also carry large volumes of water from flood rains south through western New South Wales to the Murray, and flooding occurs along their courses at times.
Flood rains occur at irregular intervals in the Murray-Murrumbidgee system of New South Wales and Victoria, the coastal streams of southern Victoria and the north coast streams of Tasmania.