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Friday, 18 January, 2002, 18:36 GMT
Freak weather in Australia
Sydney in the rain
People are asking, "What happened to our summer?"
By Phil Mercer in Sydney

It has been a crazy year so far for the weather in Australia - and it is not only bush fires that have caused Summer chaos.

Since the New Year, nature has delivered snow, hail-stones the size of bowling balls and a tropical cyclone.

And the list of freak conditions does not stop there.

Earlier this week 40 millimetres (1.6 inches) of rain fell in less than 15 minutes on the town of Kingscliff in northern New South Wales.

"The wind came then the rain and the hail," 40 year old Mark Prior told the Sydney Morning Herald. "The stones went from golf ball size right through to the size of small melons."

Nature's ferocity

The hail smashed windows and shattered hundreds of roof tiles. Yet communities less than 16 kilometres (10 miles) away escaped without a scratch.

Freak storm in Sydney, January 2001
Even experts say the weather can be unpredictable
Weather forecasters say hailstorms are created in the upper atmosphere by powerful up-drafts of air. Rain trapped in the clouds freezes and the stones are kept up by the gusts coming up from below.

They fall from the sky when the air can longer support their weight.

Rob Webb, from the Bureau of Meteorology in Sydney, told BBC News Online that nature's ferocity should never be under-estimated.

Sydney's summer image as a sun-soaked paradise disguises its position as the wild weather capital of Australia

"The weather never ceases to amaze me," he said. "Its power and the size of the devastation it can inflict are awesome."

The Bureau issues hundreds of severe weather warnings every year. It is not uncommon for tornados to strike during the hot summer months.

These fierce twisters are a spinning vortex beneath a thunderstorm and can generate winds in excess of 354km/h (220mph).

'Fact of life'

Sydney's summer image as a sun-soaked paradise disguises its position as the wild weather capital of Australia.

New South Wales has more extreme conditions than any other state. In April 1999 a hailstorm caused half a billion pounds worth of damage in Sydney's eastern suburbs.

Bush fires near Sydney were mainly caused by arson
In 1991 a freak windstorm sent gusts up 201km/h (125 mph) through parts of the city.

Torrential rain may have brought the Christmas bush fire crisis to an end but it has caused fresh problems. Some emergency crews have moved from fighting fires to helping victims of flooding.

"It doesn't get more unpredictable than this but it is a fact of life," said forecaster Rob Webb.

Parts of New South Wales have disappeared under the rising waters and have been declared natural disaster areas by the state government. Despite this, some farmers' leaders believe a drought is on the way.

'I feel cheated'

Further north it is the heat that has been causing problems. Parts of tropical Queensland have endured electrical storms and temperatures up to 45C. In one town, the mercury shot up by 10C in just five minutes due to a change in the wind direction.

We're used to it

Tony Koursaris, Darwin resident
Things have been slightly cooler down south. Snow fell on Mount Hotham in Victoria's Great Diving Range over Christmas, while summer temperatures in Melbourne have struggled to break past 30C.

"I feel cheated," moaned one sun-starved caller to a national radio phone-in programme.

"Who's stolen summer?" asked another.

Other Australians take the continent's wayward weather in their stride.

People in north-west Queensland are settling in for their usual wet season isolation and are cleaning up after cyclone Bernie ripped across the Gulf of Carpentaria over Christmas.

Cyclones are spinning masses of cloud and rain and generate monster winds. In 1974 most of Darwin was flattened by tropical storm Tracey.

Despite living in the eye of these storms, many residents simply accept what Mother Nature throws at them.

Tony Koursaris, the licensee of the Burketown pub, said being cut off was a part of life in the far north.

"The storm has dumped a bit of rain around the place but it's done no drastic damage here, it's just closed the roads," he said. "We're used to it."

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