The generally low relief of Australia is evident in the elevation and relief map (map 1.4). Compared to other continents, Australia causes little obstruction to the atmospheric systems which control the climate. A notable exception is the eastern uplands which modify the atmospheric flow, sometimes causing the 'Easterly Dip' which is evident in some surface pressure charts.
In the winter half of the year (May-October) anticyclones, or high pressure systems, pass from west to east across the continent and may remain almost stationary over the interior for several days. These anticyclones may be 4,000 kms wide and, in the Southern hemisphere, rotate anticlockwise. Northern Australia is thus influenced by mild, dry south-east winds, and southern Australia experiences cool, moist westerly winds. The westerlies, and the frontal systems associated with extensive depressions (lows, sometimes called extra-tropical cyclones) travelling over the Southern Ocean, have a controlling influence on the climate of southern Australia during the winter season, causing rainy periods. Periodic north-west cloud bands in the upper levels of the atmosphere over the continent may interact with southern systems to produce rainfall episodes, particularly over eastern areas. Cold outbreaks, particularly in south-east Australia, occur when cold air of Southern Ocean origin is directed northwards by intense depressions having diameters up to 2,000 kms. Cold fronts associated with the southern depressions, or with secondary depressions over the Tasman Sea, may produce strong winds and large day-to-day variations in temperature in southern areas, particularly in south-east coastal regions.
In the summer half of the year (November-April) the anticyclones travel from west to east on a more southerly track across the southern fringes of Australia, directing easterly winds generally over the continent. Fine, warmer weather predominates in southern Australia with the passage of each anticyclone. Heat waves occur when there is an interruption to the eastward progression of the anticyclone ('blocking') and winds back northerly and later north-westerly. Northern Australia comes under the influence of summer disturbances associated with the southward intrusion of warm moist monsoonal air from north of the intertropical convergence zone, resulting in a hot rainy season. Southward dips of the monsoonal low pressure trough sometimes spawn tropical depressions, and may prolong rainy conditions over northern Australia for up to three weeks at a time.
Tropical cyclones are strong, well-organised low pressure systems of tropical origin where average surface winds are expected to reach at least gale force (speed equivalent of 63-87 km/h) - gusts can be up to 50% higher than the average. Winds associated with severe tropical cyclones reach at least hurricane force (119 km/h) - the highest wind speed recorded in Australia was 267 km/h, which occurred with Tropical Cyclone Vance (March 1999). Tropical cyclones develop over the seas around northern Australia where sea surface temperatures exceed 26 degrees C in summer. Interestingly, tropical cyclones do not usually form within 5 degrees (or so) north or south of the Equator because the Coriolis Force associated with the rotation of the Earth is close to zero in this zone and this 'twist' is important for cyclone formation. Their frequency of occurrence and the tracks they follow vary greatly from season to season. On average, about three cyclones per season directly affect the Queensland coast, and about three affect the north and north-west coasts. Tropical cyclones approaching the coast usually produce very heavy rain and high winds in coastal areas. Some cyclones move inland, losing intensity but still producing widespread heavy rainfall and, occasionally, moderate to severe damage.
The climate of eastern and northern Australia is influenced by the Southern Oscillation (SO), a see-sawing of atmospheric pressure between the northern Australian/Indonesian region and the central Pacific Ocean. This Oscillation is one of the most important causes of climatic variation after the annual seasonal cycle over eastern and northern Australia. The strength of the SO is defined by the Southern Oscillation Index, which is a measure of the difference in sea level atmospheric pressure between Tahiti in the central Pacific and Darwin in northern Australia. At one extreme of the Oscillation, the pressure is abnormally high at Darwin and abnormally low at Tahiti. Severe and widespread drought over eastern and northern Australia generally accompanies this extreme. These conditions generally commence early in the year, last for about 12 months, and have a recurrence period of two to seven years.
The above extreme is sometimes immediately preceded or followed by the opposite extreme where pressures at Darwin are abnormally low and those at Tahiti are abnormally high. In this case, rainfall is generally above average over eastern and northern Australia.
The SO is linked to sea surface temperatures (SSTs) in the Pacific Ocean. Dry extreme SO years are accompanied by above normal SSTs in the central and/or eastern equatorial Pacific and vice versa. Dry extreme years are called El Niño years (El Niño is 'baby boy' in Spanish). Wet extreme years are called La Niña years (La Niña is 'baby girl'). Continuing research into the El Niño/La Niña phenomenon is revealing the connectivity between atmospheric circulation, sea surface temperatures, currents (surface as well as deep currents) and their interaction with the land masses. An article in the Geography and climate chapter of Year Book Australia 1998 provides further detail.
This page last updated 20 August 2007