Studying Australian weather

Australia’s climate is diverse, ranging from equatorial to temperate (Figure 3.1). To begin understanding how different Australian climates are experienced and responded to, two study areas were selected - Darwin in the north and Melbourne in the south (see Figure 3.1).

Established around the Yarra River in 1835, Melbourne (Victoria) is home to a growing population of four million (Australian Bureau of Statistics

Study area location and climate classifications based on Koppen’s classification system

Figure 3.1 Study area location and climate classifications based on Koppen’s classification system.

Beyond the ‘comfort zone’ 47 [ABS] 2011b). Melbourne is Australia’s second largest capital city (after Sydney), hosting a large business hub and attracting significant tourist numbers. Its residents experience the four traditional European seasons -Summer, Autumn, Winter and Spring. According to Koppen’s classification system, Melbourne has a temperate climate, having warm Summers and no dry season (Bureau of Meteorology [BoM] 2008). During Summer, hot days and heatwaves are frequent, with temperatures reaching as high as 46.4°C. Winters are moderately cold, with daily July temperatures ranging between 6.0°C and 13.5°C (BoM 2014a). Compared with northern cities, Melbourne has reliable but lower rainfall with fewer thunderstorms and severe storms. Legendary for its ‘four seasons in one day’, its changeable weather is the outcome of its coastal position, where warm continental temperatures meet cold Bass Strait air. These weather changes warrant visitor advice - ‘A tip for any visitor is to be prepared for anything - take an umbrella and wear layers that can be worn or removed as needed!’ (City of Melbourne 2011: n.p.).

In the north of Australia, Darwin’s climate is categorised as ‘tropical savannah’, having two seasons - ‘the Wet’ and ‘the Dry’ (BoM 2008). ‘Tropical savannah’ reflects its warm and relatively stable temperatures, where average daily maximums range from 33.3°C in November to 30.6°C in June and July (BoM 2014b). Unlike its temperatures, Darwin experiences substantial variation in monthly rainfall - over 425 millilitres in January and 1.2 millilitres in July (BoM 2014b). In addition to the Wet and Dry seasons, local indigenous and non-indigenous residents acknowledge a third distinct season -‘the Build-Up’, a period of high humidity. In this chapter, all three seasons are recognised - the Build-up, the Wet, and the Dry. Darwin’s tropical location also exposes it to cyclonic events. Since its European colonisation in 1869, the city has been demolished by cyclones on three occasions -1897, 1937 and 1974. The most recent and devastating, Cyclone Tracy, changed many aspects of Darwin life, including its architecture, which saw transitions from passive tropical designs to air-conditioner dependent styles (Parish 2007; Rothwell 2007).

To investigate the role of weather in everyday life, a longitudinal study was conducted involving 20 Melbourne and 16 Darwin participants. The study areas were selected to highlight diversity in experiences of comfort. Accounts were generated using two approaches, each applied to one of the two study areas (for details, see de Vet 2013). While approaches differed, they focused on participants’ weather experiences and responses while occupying different spaces and engaging in a range of activities. Discussions varied from household chores, commuting, and leisure activities, to naturally ventilated home and workspaces. How participants felt physically during the course of the day, including sensations of comfort and discomfort, were central to questions. The following two sections draw from one of the two study areas - thermal comfort in Melbourne and comfortable weather conditions in Darwin.

‘I enjoy heatwaves’: identifying and understanding diversity in thermal comfort in Melbourne

I like it hot. Like, really hot. I’m quite happy for it to be 40 degrees or something. I enjoy heatwaves.

(Levi, Spring)

To find heatwaves comfortable is perhaps surprising. However, Levi’s statement suggests that perceptions of comfort may involve more than physical sensations. In Melbourne, participants’ thermal comfort diverged by 26°C, extending between 14°C and 40°C, with most preferring temperatures of 25°C and above. Other weather elements were also important, notably humidity, but temperature was always influential. Beyond these levels of comfort, however, was not ‘discomfort’. Rather, participants identified temperatures that were neither comfortable nor uncomfortable, encapsulated both simultaneously, or included brief but acceptable periods of discomfort. These mid-point positions were often described as ‘okay’, ‘not perfect’, ‘sufficient’, ‘bearable’, or ‘endurable’. Participants expected and accepted these ‘manageable’ conditions as part of everyday life.

Differences between engineering definitions of comfort and participants’ thermal experiences are likely the outcome of discrepancies in methodological approach, namely: subjective responses; variation in terminology (i.e. ‘comfortable’, ‘preferred’, ‘optimal’ and ‘ideal’); the ‘everyday’ research focus, incorporating a variety of activities with differing levels of physical exertion; and, the inclusion of outdoor and transitional spaces. However, in examining participants’justifications, intriguing understandings of comfort came to light.

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