The Climate of Sydney

From the very start, new arrivals noticed the climate, just as you will.

The Australian climate

Australia lies between 10° and 39° south of the equator, so it is partly in the tropics, and mainly in the temperate zone. The Sydney Calendar will give you an idea of what to expect in New South Wales, and you will find details for other parts of Australia on the Bureau of Meteorology site at http://www.bom.gov.au/climate/averages/ which has more detail than anybody could ever want.

With the exception of Antarctica, no continent has less liquid water than Australia. Rather than having seasons, Australia has a staggering hiccoughing cycle of El Niņo events, with droughts and flooding rains, such as Dorothea Mackellar describes in My Country. One of the long-standing themes in Australian rural culture is a hatred of "the Banks", much of it stemming from the way in which banks lend money on an annual basis, and repossess properties when the money cannot be paid back until the end of that particular drought cycle.

About 70% of the continent is classified as arid or semi-arid, and eleven large deserts make up about 20% of the mainland. These are not "deserts" in the popular image of featureless sand, but rather, they are sandy or stony, but they also carry plants and animals, and after rain, they can be breathtakingkly beautiful, but Australia's deserts are not a place to stray on your own.

Across the continent, the average rainfall is a mere 465 mm, about 15 inches, as low as 125 mm (5 inches) in the Lake Eyre drainage basin. Western NSW can record temperatures over 50° C (122° F), and the highest ever recorded was 53° C (128° F) at Cloncurry in 1889. The coldest temoperature ever recorded was -23° C at Charlotte Pass near Mount Kosciuszko in 1994.

While it can snow in January near Cradle Mountain in Tasmania, and while you may need a sweater on the Great Barrier Reef in July, most parts of Australia are pleasant and predictable most of the time.

The Sydney climate

Because Sydney's coastal suburbs are surrounded by seawater, temperature conditions are buffered, and sea breezes keep the hot days cool. Head out west, even a few kilometres, and the extremes are greater. You won't see snow in Sydney, and even frosts are rare near the coast.

Historically, we average a metre of rain, 40 inches, each year, but few years are average years. There is no rainy season, and the rain usually goes quickly, but sudden storms can be common, and "showers" means downpors in some places and nothing a few hundred metres away. Learn to live with it.

Sydney is in the southern hemisphere: if you are from the northern hemisphere, remember that the seasons are reversed. Our hottest months are December to February, during the southern summer. Our flowers largely ignore the seasons, so you can usually see about 30 species in flower as you walk along a suburban street, and at least that number species of wildflower can be in bloom any time from May to December, with a few less in January-April. The best time for wildflowers is in August, when a walk over a headland can reveal 60 species in bloom.

Temperatures

The nearer you are to the sea, the more stable the temperature becomes. The heat is taken out of the worst heat wave by the gentle sea-breeze, and a frost within several kilometres of the sea is an unusual event. The temperature scale in common use is the Celsius scale, often referred to as the Centigrade scale. If you prefer the Fahrenheit scale, divide by 5, multiply by 9, and add 32, or use this rule of thumb: 0° is freezing, 10° is chilly, 20° is comfortable, 30° is getting warm, 40° is a heat wave.

In summer, the temperature can reach the high 30s on a bad day, and will occasionally drop down to 17 at night, but the summer temperatures are more typically somewhere in the twenties.

In winter, the temperature can go as low as 5 degrees, with a wind chill factor on top of that, and reach freezing away from the coast. Even so, a winter's day when the temperature fails to reach 15 degrees is a cause for grumbling. The temperature, in other words, is generally mild. If you need to wear a coat, be prepared to take it off later, and if it isn't coat weather, it might be handy to carry something warm, as you may need it later, especially if a southerly change comes in.

Ocean temperatures

In winter, the ocean temperature falls to about 15 degrees, while in summer it can rise to about 21 or 22, with wider fluctuations in enclosed swimming pools. There are a number of heated pools available for all-year-round swimming: see Olympic Pools for details.

There are people who swim the whole year around in Sydney, but these are generally regarded as eccentric: few people swim in June, July or August. Board riders surf all year around in wet-suits, and people will lie on the sand or paddle in the shallows all through the year.

Rain, hail, snow

Rain is spread fairly evenly through the year, often coming in the late afternoon or at night. Sydney's bad weather usually comes from the west of the continent as a cold front, and can be seen in advance on the TV weather maps and satellite photos, usually shown at the end of the news bulletins. Persistent rain usually comes from a low pressure zone settling off the coast, sending south-easterly winds in onto the coast.

Northern hemisphere weather watchers should note that winds go clockwise around our lows (and anti-clockwise round a high), and that warm fronts are very rare events.

Hail happens in Sydney a few times each summer, usually as part of a spectacular thunderstorm, and the hailstones can and do occasionally damage cars. There will usually be warnings on the local radio stations before a hailstorm reaches you.

Snow is seen in winter maybe once every five years, but you need to be an expert to recognise the three or four flakes that fall. Snow is usually seen once or twice each year in the Blue Mountains, where they usually get enough snow to build the odd snowman. There is skiable snow in Australia, though, but if you want to go skiing, head for the Snowy Mountains, 500 km south of Sydney, between June and October. If you won't do that, then you'd better settle for some water-skiing.

Winds

The westerly wind in summer is hot, dry and dusty, and so is the north-wester. On days like that, head for the coast, where the prevailing north-easterly sea-breeze ("the nor-easter") will give you some relief, provided it "gets up". There are days when the sea breeze fails, and then all you can do is wait and hope for the "Southerly Buster". This is a strong southerly breeze, tearing up the coast, bringing coolness with it. In winter, the southerly can sometimes become a gale that brings bad weather with it, and the sou'easter is generally a rain wind. The sou'easter is a good wind to catch the Manly ferry in.

Smog

Given the right conditions, Sydney can suffer from bad air pollution. Over the past ten or fifteen years, the laws on smoke emission have been tightened up, and the problem has become less serious. The pollution is still visible, but the levels are comparatively low. The closer to the coast you are, the less smog you will see, especially in summer when the nor'easter is blowing.

For detailed conditions, month by month, see the weather page. This file is http://members.ozemail.com.au/~macinnis/syd/climate.htm, first created on February 28, 2006. Last recorded revision (well I get lazy and forget sometimes!) was on October 9, 2006.


© The author of this work is Peter Macinnis. You are free to point at this page. Copies of this page or set of pages may be stored on PDAs or printed for personal use. You can't contact me at macinnis@ozemail.com.au, but if you add my first name to the front of that email address, you can -- this is a low-tech way of making it harder to harvest the e-mail address I actually read.
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