An island life: A short history of the long-standing meteorological service on Lord Howe Island
17 March 2015
The Bureau of Meteorology’s staffed weather station on Lord Howe Island has a unique and vibrant history, with weather observations on this little piece of offshore Australia dating back an incredible 129 years.
For the island community of just 380 people, days invariably begin by checking the daily forecast from the Bureau’s Meteorological Office – or ‘the Met’, as the locals like to call it. For this remote and exposed community, the weather holds a special significance—and particularly for the operators of the lodges, boats and aircraft on which the island’s crucial tourism industry depends.
‘This is a place where the weather affects nearly everyone,’ says Les Lever, who has served as the Bureau’s Field Office Manager on the island for the past five years. ‘Forecasts and warnings are very important for many tour and boat operators, for the police and local government, as well as for the lodges, which put them up on their noticeboards to help guests plan the day ahead.’
In fact, Lord Howe Island’s weather data travels much further and affects many more people than the 380 residents and up to 400 visitors who may be on the island at any one time. As well as being critical to maritime traffic in the Tasman Sea, the station is part of the Global Upper Air Network (GUAN), which unites some 150 weather stations across the world—including 16 in Australia—under the auspices of the Global Climate Observing System.
Lord Howe Island Station, 1988
As part of its obligations under GUAN, a weather balloon is released on the island each morning, rising more than 30 km into the atmosphere and relaying a rich variety of data on temperature, air pressure, humidity and wind speed to the Bureau in Melbourne, as well as to other GUAN partners.
The 9.45 am release has become a regular highlight for island visitors, who have a unique chance to see one of the Bureau’s fully automated weather balloon releases. Visitors also enjoy the opportunity to learn about the Bureau of Meteorology, its operations and the services it provides.
The island’s Met Office also collects a variety of surface observation data, including the three-hourly ‘synoptic observations’ logged on the Bureau’s website and the half-hourly ‘aviation observations’ for local air traffic. At just 864 m long, the island’s airstrip is one of the shortest in Australia, and the close proximity of an often-rough ocean and the sheer slopes of Mounts Gower and Lidgbird make accurate forecasts critical to flight safety.
The Bureau established its first Meteorological Office on Lord Howe Island in 1939, recently celebrating its 75th anniversary. After a two-year stint by the first Observing Officer, Albert Khan, the role was taken over by local resident Edgar (‘Mick’) Nichols, who served in the job for nearly 30 years, from October 1941 to January 1971. Mick remains something of a legend on the island, where his three children, Barney, Daphne and Garth, are all still residents.
The original Met Office was located on the site of the current post office, next door to the Flying Boat Base, but in November 1954 it moved to a better observations site on a clifftop on the eastern side of the island. It remained there until November 1988, when the need to collect more accurate data for the island’s growing air traffic led to its relocation to the airport.
Edgar (Mick) Nichols – performing a theodolite weather balloon flight
In 1994, the Bureau installed an automatic weather station, giving Lord Howe Island the very latest capacity for meteorological and climate data collection. In recent years, this has been joined by a state-of-the-art Aerodrome Weather Information System (AWIS) and an AUTOSONDE upper-air observation system, which replaced the manual weather balloon release system.
The island’s meteorological service also benefits from the efforts of a loyal group of rainfall volunteers, who collect data at three other sites around the island—ensuring the continuity of a tradition that began in 1886.
The close-knit loyalty of Lord Howe Islanders is one thing that Les Lever will miss when he completes his posting at the Lord Howe Island Meteorological Office this year.
‘This is an incredibly unique place,’ says Les. ‘It’s stunningly beautiful, and full of remarkable people who all hold true to deep values about their heritage, their concern for the environment, and their unique sense of community and family.’
And, it seems, their historic weather service.