Sunburnt Country by Joelle Gergis

Sunburnt Country

Reviewed by Wendy Lipke

In 2008, young researcher Joelle Gergis was contacted by the University of Melbourne to reconstruct Australia’s climate history for as much of the last 1000 years as possible. To help achieve this goal the South East Recent Climate History (SEARCH) project was born and funded in 2009. In 2014 the work produced was awarded the Eureka Prize for Excellence in Interdisciplinary Scientific Research the ‘Oscars of Australian Science’(10).

This book, Sunburnt Country has arisen from that research so the information in the book is of the highest scientific standard but the text is presented in a manner that is very readable by the general public. It contains personal insights and experiences of the author during the ten year project.

The content is divided into five parts titled Colonial Calamities; Weather Watchers; Time Travellers; History Repeating? And Age of Consequences. Each section has at least eight chapters, detailing information found and methods used to ensure that all information was scientifically accurate. As the author says, ‘before historical observations can be analysed as part of reliable climate research, the quality of the data needs to be assessed and adjusted as necessary’ for ‘data inhomogeneities’ (67).

Parts 1 and 2 look back through our history from when weather records began in 1900, to colonial accounts of our climate, and indigenous people’s understanding of the weather. One cannot help but feel for the first white settlers who came to this island which encompasses tropical regions, desert, savannah, alpine and temperate zones and endured the sheer diversity of the weather conditions so different from those of the rigid European seasonal calendar – spring, summer, autumn and winter with which they were familiar.

The weather has been described by the early settlers as- ‘thunder and lightning are astonishingly awful here’(12)and this place has the ‘most spectacular erratic climate in the world’(54). The Federation drought (1895 -1902) was so severe that the government declared 26th Feb 1902 as a day of humility and prayer (91). This was not the first time something like this had occurred. The second of November in the year 1839 had also been designated a ‘Day of fast and humiliation’ in response to the alarming continuance of the drought at that time. Presbyterian minister, John Dunmore Lang believed it was a list of sins he had identified that was the reason for the extreme weather – ignoring the Sabbath, abuse of the working class, vicious actions of white men against the aboriginal people(49). ‘

Part 3 delves into Palaeoclimatic methods of gaining information on Australian climate before white settlement.  For this the old kauri trees and coral can divulge information through the size of the growth rings within them. Wet and dry years can also be encoded in lake sediments.

Part 4 addresses the issue of climate change and the human fingerprints on our climate, while the last section looks at the New Normal, our Political Hot Potato, the Clean Energy Revolution and finishes very aptly with reminding us that ‘We are all in this together’.

I found some very fascinating facts during my read through Sunburnt Country. For instance, did you know that our first weatherman was Lieutenant William Dawes from the HMS Sirius. He maintained his observations with great dedication before returning to England prematurely for refusing to follow Governor Phillip’s order to carry out punishment raids against the local aboriginal people.

I also found out that on 28/06/1836 Sydney was blanket in snow and that the 1954 Gold Coast cyclone washed away the jetty at Byron Bay taking with it virtually the entire town’s fishing fleet. It was also interesting to read that by the end of January 1974 much of the country was underwater with extensive areas of inland Australia submerged in flood waters for months and that in 1902 a north-westerly gale caused extensive dust storms across South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales. As well as tearing off roofs, uprooting trees and downing telegraph poles, in the Riverina, it deposited a sand layer of 30 cm deep which had to be shovelled off the railway line.

One might assume that a book about this topic would be too academic for the general public but personal excerpts like (in response to receiving notification of an inter-library loan), ‘I dropped everything, jumped straight on my bike and headed for the University of Melbourne Baillieu Library. As I zipped across the campus…..’(61), help to make it very readable for all.

The text is interspersed with maps, pictures and tables of information and sketches and the book includes twenty-five pages of references and an extensive index.

This is a very timely topic for all Australians as renowned economist Ross Garnaut reminds us, ‘that Australia is the most vulnerable country in the developed world when it comes to climate change’ and that our ‘vulnerability to humanitarian crises resulting from climate change is so high that Asia-Pacific, which includes Australia, has recently been dubbed ‘Disaster Alley’ by experts in the field’(219).

I believe this book is one that all Australians should read.

Sunburnt Country


By Joelle Gergis

Melbourne University Press

ISBN: 978-0-522-87154-8

321pp; $34.99

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