17 January 1908
Was it Australia's hottest day?
January 1908 was legendary for decades as Australia's month from hell and historic records of that season suggest it was hotter than the summer of 2013.
Two slow moving, huge and very hot heatwaves stretched from December into late January 1908, blitzing WA, SA, Victoria and NSW including 50C at Eucla (which newspapers report had a Stevenson Screen weather station).
As the heat dragged on, hundreds of people died (like flies, according to the Daily News) and the overseas press reported that hundreds of thousands of Australians were falling ill from the heat.
The Bureau of Meteorology claims January 2013 was the hottest month ever in Australia and 7 January 2013 was the hottest ever day with an average raw maximum of 35.1C adjusted up through area averaging to 40.3C, according to Special Climate Statement 43.
The BoM's grid weighted area average temperature calculation is based on an assumed 721 weather stations on 7 January 2013 and similar calculations are applied retrospectively to all days across Australia back to 1911 for comparison.
The daily grid for the BoM's daily maximum temperature on 1 January 1911 shows the estimate is based on 84 reporting weather stations spread across Australia.
17 January 1908
This page analyses raw absolute maximum temperatures from 213 weather stations on 17 January 1908, one of the hotter but probably not the hottest day that month, all sourced to weather bureau newspaper reports at the time.
The 213 weather stations and temperatures are listed to the left, their links creating pop-up windows of relevant 1908 newspaper articles that validate the raw temperatures quoted.
Western Australia and Tasmania were not extremely hot on 17 January 1908 as the heatwave occurred earlier in the west and in following days to the east.
Based on archived newspaper weather reports, the average raw maximum across Australia on 17 January 1908 was 39.0C.
Missing towns and BoM alternatives
Newspaper articles containing raw maximum temperatures cannot be found for Alice Springs, Boulia, Bourke, Burketown, Cairns, Charleville, Darwin and Richmond.
If their digitised and possibly adjusted raw maximum from the BoM database are added to broaden the station network into Australia's interior and north (where few weather stations existed in 1908), the raw average maximum is 38.9C, derived from 221 locations.
This compares with the 35.1C raw maximum estimated by the BoM for 7 January 2013 at 721 weather stations.
National and state breakdown
Australia 7 Jan 2013
- Average raw maximum 35.1C from 721 stations
- Area averaged to 40.3C
- Hottest area averaged day 40.3C on 7 Jan 2013
17 January 1908 average raw maximum at 213 stations: 39.0C
17 January 1908 average raw maximum at 221 stations: 38.9C
Victoria 7 Jan 2013
- Area averaged to 37.8C from 94 stations
- Hottest area averaged day 41.99C on 4 Jan 2013
17 January 1908 average raw maximum at 94 stations: 42.8C
NSW 7 Jan 2013
- Area averaged 38.87C from 172 stations
- Hottest area averaged day 41.89C on 18 Jan 2013
17 January 1908 average raw maximum at 55 stations: 41.2C
South Australia 7 Jan 2013
- Area averaged 43.5C from 80 stations
- Hottest area averaged day 43.79C on 4 Jan 2013
17 January 1908 average raw maximum at 7 stations: 43.7C
Queensland 7 Jan 2013
- Area averaged 36.82C from 125 stations
- Hottest area averaged day 41.19C on 13 Jan 2013
17 January 1908 average raw maximum at 4 stations: 30.7C
Western Australia 7 Jan 2013
- Area averaged 42.29C from 139 stations
- Hottest area averaged day 42.69C on 8 Jan 2013
17 January 1908 average raw maximum at 47 stations: 30.2C
Tasmania 7 Jan 2013
- Area averaged 27.05C from 57 stations
- Hottest area averaged day 32.99C on 8 Jan 2013
17 January 1908 average raw maximum at 6 stations: 28.7C
How many weather stations?
Below is an extract from the Adelaide Register newspaper three days after 17 Jan 1908, clarifying how many Australian weather stations were monitored by the newly formed Commonwealth Bureau of Meteorology.
In 1908 it was 217 stations - 32 in WA, 21 in SA, 122 in Victoria, 15 in NSW, 17 in Queensland and 10 in Tasmania.
Listed to the left are 213 tracked stations - 47 in WA, 7 in SA, 94 in Victoria, 55 in NSW, 4 in Queensland and 6 in Tasmania.
There were 714 weather stations altogether across Australia in January 1908, operated by the various state weather bureaux, compared to between 700 and 720 stations used to calculate an area average of 40.3C on 7 January 2013 in the Australian Water Availability Project (AWAP) network of stations.
Among the 213 tracked stations listed to the left, 44 are either among the 112 Australian Climate Observations Reference Network (ACORN) stations or are their predecessors at or close to the same location.
Differences between stations
There are obvious differences between the spatial network diversity of the 213 stations listed to the left and the AWAP dataset, as well as instrument differences.
However, the tracked stations cover an enormous breadth of Australia and it is only the interior and north-north-west of the country that lack any density of thermometer recordings in 1908 compared to the AWAP dataset in 2013.
These areas are normally hotter than southern districts during January and it is unknown what temperatures would have been recorded in the isolated regions if weather stations were operating at the time.
A majority of the stations to the left were using Stevenson Screens with a few stations such as Bendigo still using older Greenwich or Glaisher screens. Also, few stations in 1908 were affected by the Urban Heat Islands common in large towns and cities in 2013.
Furthermore, the raw average maximum of 38.9C on 17 January 1908 is estimated from 221 weather stations, whereas the AWAP dataset in 1911 comprised only 84 weather stations.
Same station comparison
An alternative comparison between 17 January 1908 and 7 January 2013 is possible by only comparing weather stations that are in the same cities and regional towns across Australia, including those that have shifted a few kilometres from post offices to airports.
Among the two groups there are 85 weather stations that are in the same location in 1908 and 2013, presenting an identical network of stations. Albeit not all the same, a network of 85 stations is numerically similar to the 84 in the AWAP grid series for 1911.
The 85 stations and temperatures with national and state breakdowns can be downloaded in this data file (Excel 111kb).
Based on the 85 stations with newspaper sourced temperatures on 17 January 1908, the raw average maximum was 37.65C.
On 7 January 2013, the raw average maximum at those same locations was 37.14C. The same stations were an average 0.51C hotter in 1908.
Including the eight northern stations with temperatures unavailable in newspapers but sourced to the BoM raw database, 17 January 1908 had an average maximum of 37.48C and 7 January 2013 had an average maximum of 37.19C. The same 93 stations were an average 0.23C hotter in 1908.
The data file makes clear that the 1908 heatwave was concentrated in Victoria, South Australia, NSW and Tasmania on that particular day, with cooler conditions than 2013 in much of Queensland, the south-west of WA and the Northern Territory.
Was 17 January 1908 the hottest?
It is unlikely that 17 Jan 1908 was the hottest day that month, with adjoining articles in the newspaper links to the left suggesting that following days in January 1908 may have been even hotter.
Below is an extract from the Adelaide Register newspaper on 18 Jan 1908, showing the BoM's estimate of barometer readings and patterns on 17 January 1908.
Australia's hottest ever day claimed on 7 January 2013 had a raw average maximum of 35.1C at 721 weather stations, whereas 17 January 1908 had a raw average maximum of 38.9C at 221 stations.
It may be argued that the density and range of the 1908 and 2013 weather station networks makes comparison impossible.
If so, this leaves open the question of how 221 stations in 1908 is insufficient but 84 stations in 1911 is sufficient to make a valid daily comparison with 2013 temperatures that are area averaged 5.2C above their raw maximum.
The summer of 1908 suffered a series of intense heatwaves across Australia from December to February.
The average raw maximum at all available weather stations on 17 January 1908 was 3.8C hotter than the average on 7 January 2013 and Australia's season from hell should not be overlooked when comparing temperatures in the history books.
Daily temperatures Excel download (29kb)