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Australia is too extensive to have a single climate. It is not necessarily ‘hot and dry’, as it tends to be characterised, although such a description can be applied with moderate accuracy to the interior. It is important to realise that the Tropic of Capricorn runs through Rockhampton, towards the south of Queensland, and that approximately one-third of Australia is tropical.
One can, therefore, make a basic separation into two distinct climates - tropical and temperate. Again, very roughly, but for simplicity of explanation, Queensland, the Northern Territory and the northern half of Western Australia may be regarded as tropical, while New South Wales, the Australian Capital Territory, Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia and the southern half of Western Australia are temperate.
In the temperate area, the seasons are similar to, but at the opposite time of the year to, those in the northern hemisphere - in Europe or North America, for example. In an average year, the southern capital cities ( Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne, Hobart, Adelaide and Perth) will experience one or two occasions when the temperature rises to 40ºC and one or two occasions when the temperature descends to 0ºC (except that Perth has recorded 0ºC (32ºF) only once in its meteorological history - on 15th July 1997 - and Sydney’s lowest is 2.1ºC (35.8ºF) on 22nd June 1932). As one moves further inland, temperatures tend to be more extreme and rainfall tends to decrease.
Australia claims to be the driest continent on this planet, and South Australia claims to be the driest state in the driest continent. In general, the rain falls mainly around the coast, so that inland one finds dry, dusty conditions unsuitable for much agriculture and only very sparsely populated. Snow lies only in a small area around the border of New South Wales and Victoria where the nation’s highest mountains are to be found, and also in some parts of Tasmania.
The northern parts are quite different in climate, for they have not summer and winter, but tropical Wet and Dry Seasons. Those unfamiliar with such a climate often misunderstand the temperatures which accompany such seasons. The Wet is the hotter of the two, while the Dry is pleasantly warm, but not overpoweringly hot. In between the two is sandwiched a season generally known as the Build-Up, when humidity gradually increases until it reaches almost 100% and temperatures too become higher and higher, reaching the highest levels of the whole year, until one day the heavens open and general relief is felt that the Wet has at long last started. If there is a season to avoid, it is the Build-Up.
The Wet typically lasts from December until March, the Dry from April until August and the Build-Up from September until November. Typical maxima might be 33ºC in the Wet, 28ºC in the Dry and 36ºC in the Build-Up. This type of climate is coastal. As one moves inland rainfall decreases and day temperatures tend to be higher.
Most people believe that the best time to be in the southern half of Australia is during the summer or autumn, that is December until May, and the best time to be in northern Australia is during the Dry, that is April until August. The torrential downpours at the start of the tropical Wet Season, for example, are awe-inspiring sights. Just take the weather as it comes and enjoy it.
However, if your main purpose is lying on the beach, it is worth noting that from July until November you would be better off in the northern part of Australia, and also that the tropical Wet Season will limit access to places off the main routes. Also note that the north and north-west are prone to some very fierce cyclones during the Wet.
On the topic of climate, some of the Australian records are interesting and surprising. For example, which capital city has recorded the highest temperature? When asked this question, many people guess Darwin. However, in fact all of the other seven capital cities, even Hobart (40.8ºC, 105.4ºF), have recorded higher temperatures than Darwin’s 40.5ºC (104.9ºF) on 17th October 1892. The capital city with the highest temperature is actually Adelaide with 47.6ºC (117.7ºF) on 12th January 1939. The highest temperature ever recorded anywhere in Australia was 53.1ºC (127.6ºF) in Cloncurry, Queensland on 16th January 1889. In recent years, the validity of this record has been challenged, since it was a while ago and the equipment used would not satisfy today’s standards. However, most people still regard this as the record. The Meteorological Office, however, is prepared to vouch only for the 50.7ºC (123.3ºF) recorded in Oodnadatta, South Australia on 2nd January 1960.
Marble Bar in Western Australia claims a world record by having recorded 160 consecutive days with a temperature of over 100ºF (37.8ºC), from 31st October 1923 until 7th April 1924.
The coldest capital city, as one might expect, is Canberra, since it is inland and at an altitude of approximately 550 metres. It recorded -10ºC (14ºF) on 11th July 1971.
The lowest temperature ever recorded in Australia was -23ºC (-9.4ºF) at Charlotte Pass, New South Wales on 29th June 1994.
The wettest place in Australia is Mt. Bellenden Ker, near Tully in northern Queensland . It holds the record for rainfall in a year - 12,461 millimetres (490.6 inches, or nearly 41 feet) in 2000, and the record for rainfall in a day - 1,140 millimetres (44.9 inches) on 4th January 1979. During the same downpour, it also recorded 2,517 millimetres (99.1 inches) over a period of three days.
The highest recorded wind speed in Australia is 408 km/hr during Tropical Cyclone Olivia on 10 April 1996 at Barrow Island, WA. This is the world's highest recorded wind speed for non tornado wind speeds, recognised by the World Meteorological Organization. Strong winds were also recorded at Learmonth, near Exmouth in Western Australia , where 267 km/hr (166 m.p.h.) was recorded on 22nd March 1999, during the passing of Cyclone Vance. There may have been higher speeds during Cyclone Tracy in Darwin in 1974, but the wind speed gauge jammed at 217 km/hr (135 m.p.h.).