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World Meteorological Day: Five things we've learned about our weird weather

Friday March 23, 2018 - 07:46 EDT
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Nate's not in the doldrums, he's digging into why rain needs to get dirty to get down. - ABC

The eruptions and convulsions of our planet's weather are a formidable source of awe and wonder, a daily news cycle of feast, famine, comfort, despair, and a 32 per cent chance of wet hair.

For the Weird Weather project hosted by ABC Weather's Nate Byrne, and produced in collaboration with the Bureau of Meteorology, we have dived into a brief history of today's weather.

A little more condensed than the expanding universe, or the singularity of black holes, it looks at both the doldrums and in-your-face gusts of that stuff that happens right here on Earth.

So for World Meteorological Day — and upon the announcement of the Bureau of Meteorology's partnership with the ABC — here is a brief history of that time Nate dug into our weird weather.

Why rain showers aren't necessarily clean

Rain drops are not as clean as they seem. In fact, they are a little bit dirty.

When microscopic dirt particles from the Earth get blown high into the atmosphere they are just the perfect thing for water vapour to condense onto.

If you ask the Bureau of Meteorology they will tell you these particles make the perfect seed for clouds, which help to make rain droplets form.

In order to make a cloud, you need lots of these tiny little raindrops, and that means you need lots of nuclei to get things started.

When you have enough of them, that is a cloud.

Add more and more rain droplets and the cloud can get larger and larger.

When there's enough of them, they start bumping into each other — faster than they can evaporate — and that makes raindrops that can grow larger and larger until they are big enough to survive the fall all the way down to the earth.

There are gigillions of these particles in the atmosphere. They are things like dust, dirt, pollen, pollution and plant fragments.

And this is .

We take chemicals like silver iodide or dry ice — we even tried to use table salt — and pilots put them in a plane and take them up to release them high in the atmosphere, or even shot into the air from the ground.

The tale of 'Inclement' Wragge and the cyclone

Who in their right mind would want to be named after something that leaves a trail of destruction in its wake?

Well, it was Queenslander Clement Wragge — 'Inclement' was his nickname because meteorologists like jokes — started the practice back in 1877.

And when he did, he used letters in the Greek alphabet, mythological creatures, or even the names of politicians that he did not like very much.

It helped to stop confusion when there is more than one system happening at once to give them names.

When Mr Wragge left meteorology in 1902 the practice went out of favour.

People stopped calling cyclones and storms by name.

Fast forward 60 years and the Bureau of Meteorology decided it was a good idea and they officially started naming systems.

So when a cyclone formed off the Western Australia coast on January 6, 1964, it got a name — Bessie.

Meet Hector the clockwork convector

Hector is one of only a handful of regular storms in the world to have a name, appearing every afternoon around the Tiwi Islands at the top end of Australia between September and December.

So what is it that makes Hector appear at three o'clock every single day?

Ask a Bureau meteorologist and they will tell you it is because there are perfect conditions over Bathurst and Melville Islands every afternoon due to the sea breeze and the shape of the islands.

They are roughly shaped like pyramids, where the sides converge, so the sea breeze can rush up them to form a thunderstorm at the top.

That can reach right up into the atmosphere — about 20 kilometres.

That is called the convective cell.

So aficionados and locals have a bit of a nickname for Hector, they call him 'Hector the Convector'.

Since the 1980s people have travelled from all around the world to come and study Hector, and that makes him one of the most observed storms out there.

Meteorologists especially love him.

If you are studying the cloud-type cumulonimbus, you want something that is reliable because it can be really hard to get really good data when they are looking at things like convective currents and lightning.

The menacing storms created by bushfires

Some of the most extreme bushfires that Australians have endured, like the Black Saturday fires or the Canberra fires, were made much worse by the weather that these fires created themselves.

A bushfire heats the air around it, and if the fires are really intense and the atmosphere unstable, that air can get very high in the atmosphere: up to 12-15kms or more.

On its way up to those great heights, ice can form and you can get violent winds, thunder and lightning.

And when that happens, the cloud evolves into a type of cloud called a pyrocumulonimbus.

When this pyromaniac cloud really heats up, that's when it gets some powerfully destructive super powers.

They have the ability to hurl burning embers up to 30km away, or to strike lightning 100km downstream from the fire front. That can create even more bushfires.

One of the most terrifying super powers of these pyromaniac clouds can get is the ability to make tornadoes.

When you get a tornado and fire, two of nature's most terrifying things, you get a tornado made of fire.

One of the most destructive fire tornados we know about was during the 2003 Canberra fires.

Four lives were lost and more than 500 homes were destroyed.

Residents … came home and they found cars flipped and trees ripped out of the ground and thrown kilometres away.

How the Carrington Event possessed the telegraph

A massive solar storm hit in 1859 in what is now called the Carrington Event.

On that day, before sunrise, the sky erupted in red, blue and purple auroras so bright they lit up the entire planet.

And the storm caused massive electric currents — so much so that the telegraph machines kept working even after they were unplugged.

What if something like that happened today?

It would be catastrophic.

If a solar storm damages the power network that means no power.

Some studies show it might take as long as two years to fix, others say as much as 10 years.

Luckily, the Bureau of Meteorology keeps an eye on these space storms, but there is no way of knowing when the next one might be.

They say we might have less than a day to prepare if another Carrington Event were to happen.

We have had a few close calls.

In 2005 a space weather storm took out satellite communications and GPS signals for about 10 minutes.

Weird Weather is the first series created under a new partnership agreement between the Bureau of Meteorology and ABC. The organisations have agreed to work together on content projects aimed at improving the community's understanding of weather and the science behind how and why it happens.


© ABC 2018

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