Historical droughts

I thought it very topical to write about the drought in my Long Dry Finish as it is pretty much impacting everyone. It has an impact on wine as well but I will be focusing on historical droughts in this article.

By comparison the drought hasn’t been too bad in Orange when considering the poor farmers and graziers further west… and to the east even Sydney is being forced into Level 2 water restrictions.

I asked Dr Google about droughts and it’s amazing what you can find. This first bit is on the Australian Bureau of Statistics website from a book called “Year Book Australia, 1988” (way back when we had dialup internet and the dinosaurs roamed freely). This yearbook is particularly good as it summarizes droughts all the way back to the 1860’s.

“Since the 1860s there have been nine major Australian droughts. The major drought periods of 1895-1903 and 1958-68 and the major drought of 1982-83 were the most severe in terms of rainfall deficiency and their effects on primary production. In south-eastern Australia the droughts of 1967-68 and 1982-83 were notably extreme. There have been six other droughts of a lesser degree of intensity, but nevertheless causing appreciable losses in large areas of several States. In south-eastern Australia there have been eight severe droughts, mostly encompassed within the major Australian droughts.”

I remember in 1981 when Anji and I emigrated to Australia I quipped “Why do Australians always talk about how hot and dry it is, this is Australia, why don’t they just get on with it?” I was a bit naive that we had settled into the midst of one of the driest droughts on record.

To get some up to date info on drought I consulted Dr Google’s understudy, Wikipedia, for the following information:

“From 1996 to 2010, south-eastern Australia experienced prolonged dry conditions with rainfall persistently well below average, particularly during the cooler months from April to October. The most acute period of the so-called ‘Millennium drought’ was between 2001 and 2009.”

“2002 was one of Australia’s driest and warmest years on record, with ‘remarkably widespread’ dry conditions, particularly in the eastern half of the country, which was again affected by El Niño conditions. It was, at the time, Australia’s fourth driest year since 1900.”

“2007 saw record temperatures across the south of Australia, and only patchy rain… At this point, the Bureau of Meteorology estimated that south-eastern Australia had missed the equivalent of a full year’s rain in the previous 11 years.”

“2008 and 2009 saw continuing hot and dry conditions in south-eastern Australia, with occasional heavy rainfall failing to break the continuing drought. The effects of the drought were exacerbated by Australia’s (then) second hottest year on record in 2009, with record-breaking heatwaves in January, February and the second half of the year.”

“2010 and 2011: Australia’s weather pattern transitioned rapidly to a wet La Niña pattern during autumn, resulting in record-breaking rains in the Murray-Darling Basin and well above average rainfall across the south-east.”

2013 – 2015: Dry conditions began to be sustained again and progressed through 2015.

2016 was a very wet year filling dams, soil profiles and adding recharge to aquifers.

“2017 – Current drought
By July 2019, a climatologist at the Australian Bureau of Meteorology stated that present the drought was now officially the worst on record in the Murray–Darling Basin, and “had now exceeded the Federation Drought, the WWII drought and the Millennium drought in terms of its severity through the MDB”.”

We’re making history!… aren’t we lucky!

Looking forward I think it apt to impart some sage wisdom shared by a neighbour when we arrived in the middle of the 1981 drought… “Rain always ruins a good drought.”

Speaking of sage wisdom, my 38 years in this sun burnt country has taught me that Australia’s rainfall averages are generally made up of the extremes… so don’t sell the dingy.

All of the facts I have quoted are extracted from the Australian Bureau of Statistics and Wikipedia. You can click on these links if you’d like to read the full articles. (I stumbled across some other fascinating articles on the ABS web page that will make very interesting reading)


I’ve attached some historical drought charts below that I found very interesting.

Best of luck and hopefully we’ll soon need to batten down the hatches.


Major Droughts in Australia

1864 – 66 (and l868). The little data available indicate that this drought period was rather severe in Victoria, South Australia, New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia.

1880 – 86 Victoria (northern areas and Gippsland); New South Wales (mainly northern wheat belt, northern tablelands and south coast); Queensland (1881-86, in south-east with breaks – otherwise mainly in coastal areas, the central highlands and central interior in 1883-86); and South Australia (1884-86, mainly in agricultural areas).

1888 Victoria (northern areas and Gippsland); Tasmania (1887-89 in the south); New South Wales; Queensland (1888-89); South Australia and Western Australia (central agricultural areas).

1895 – 1903 Practically the whole of Australia was affected but most persistently the coast of Queensland, inland areas of New South Wales, South Australia, and central Australia. This was probably Australia’s worst drought to date in terms of severity and area. Sheep numbers, which had reached more than 100 million, were reduced by approximately half and cattle numbers by more than 40 per cent. Average wheat yields exceeded 8 bushels per acre in only one year of the nine, and dropped to 2.4 bushels per acre in 1902.

1911 – 16 Victoria (1913-15 in north and west); Tasmania (1913-15); New South Wales, particularly inland areas; Queensland; Northern Territory (mainly in the Tennant Creek-Alexandria Downs area); South Australia (some breaks in agricultural areas); and Western Australia (1910-14).

1918 – 20 Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia, Northern Territory (Darwin-Daly Waters area and central Australia), Western Australia (Fortescue area), Victoria, and Tasmania.
1939 – 45 New South Wales (severe on the coast), South Australia (persistent in pastoral areas), Queensland and Tasmania; also (more particularly in 1940 and 1944-45) in Western Australia, Victoria, and central Australia; Tennant Creek-Alexandria Downs area in 1943-45.

1958 – 68 This drought was most widespread and probably second to the 1895-1903 drought in severity. For more than a decade from 1957, drought was consistently prominent and frequently made news head-lines from 1964 onwards. This was treated as one major drought period, but could be subdivided into two which overlapped, both in time and space. Central Australia and vast areas of adjacent Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia, New South Wales, and northern Australia were affected, with varying intensity, 1957-66; and south eastern Australia experienced a severe drought, 1964 68.

1982 – 83 This extensive drought affected nearly all of eastern Australia, and was particularly severe in south eastern Australia. Lowest ever 11 month rainfall occurred over most of Victoria and much of inland New South Wales and central and southern Queensland; and lowest ever 10 month rainfall occurred in much of South Australia and northern Queensland. Total losses were estimated in excess of S3,000 million.

Severe Droughts in South-Eastern Australia


Southern Queensland, most of New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and parts of Tasmania. 9-10 months to January 1889

In parts of northern New South Wales, not broken until autumn 1889


New South Wales, Victoria, parts of southern Queensland, South Australia and Tasmania.

Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania 9 months to December 1902

New South Wales and southern Queensland 12 months to 1902

Considerable overlapping of affected areas


Victoria, New South Wales west of the tablelands, settled areas of South Australia and most of Tasmania

South Australia 11-12 months to June 1915
Northern Victoria and New South Wales 10-12 months to June/July 1915
Southern Victoria 16 months to May/June 1915

Rainfall during 1913 also below average in parts of south-eastern Australia; and much of Victoria and western New South Wales had some relief in the summer of 1914-15


Most of New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and eastern Tasmania

South Australia 6 months to January 1941
Tasmania 8-9 months to January 1941
Victoria 11 months to January

Variable durations in New South Wales


Most of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia

South Australia and south-western Victoria 4-6 months to summer 1944-45
Southern Victoria 12 months to August 1945
Northern Victoria and southern New South Wales 15-19 months to August

Northern New South Wales 15-17 months to June 1945

Well below average rainfall in parts of South Australia in April-June 1945; and 1943 was also a dry year in parts of south-eastern Australia


Victoria, southern New South Wales, South Australia and Tasmania

South Australia 12- 13 months to March 1968
Tasmania 15- 16 months to May 1968
Victoria and New South Wales I4 – 15 months to May 1968

Other extensive parts of Australia affected during 1958-67


Most of Victoria, western and central New South Wales, South Australia and north eastern Tasmania 9-10 months ending February 1973

Drought broke in February 1973; except in north-eastern Tasmania, where it broke in autumn 1973


Victoria, most of New South Wales, South Australia, southern Queensland and Tasmania

Generally 11 months ending February 1983
Tasmania: 9 months ending February 1983

Drought broke in autumn 1983

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