Chasing the Winter Blues

Around mid-year in Margaret River we all start feeling the winter blues: cold short days, gusty winds, endless rain. But for those who brave the elements and head out to the coast the blues are edged with gold and silver.

Walking the beach in winter is a different story to the lazy sun soakings available for most of the year. Indoor lethargy is blown away by the roaring sea and chill wind. Walking becomes an artform; leaning into the wave- carved sandy slopes, dodging showers, and waves that leap up the beach the moment you take your eyes off them. Braving a good cold front is a bit like plugging yourself in to a battery charger.

The winter ocean has a more complex colour palette than the endless turquoise and dark blue of summer. A single moment of shifting light can transform the sea from dull grey to intense green or blue. The surface takes on a metallic glint, or is flecked with white foam from the wildness of windblown waves. Cloudbanks refract sunbeams, and rainbows abound. Even the sand shifts colour in winter. Minute grains of garnet and quartz eroded from the granite are more reflective when wet, and beaches glow with a richer hue.

Sunset in June, Contos Cliffs

Margaret River has complex weather patterns. The Leeuwin-Naturaliste region juts out from an exposed corner of the Australian continent; Antarctica and the Southern Ocean to the south, the Indian Ocean to the north and west. In summer, a succession of high pressure systems usually dominate the weather pattern, with an endless procession of dry sunny days. Winter is characterised by blustery winds and chilling rain.

Nearby in tropical Asia, the seasons are less distinct. In Singapore, temperatures are warm year round, with little variation day and night, and over 100mm of rain falls every month of the year. But below the Tropic of Capricorn, things are dramatically different. Any time of year is unpredictable: all can be subject to sudden changes and reversals. Sometimes multiple seasons flit by in a single day, a surprise for the unprepared.

European colonial culture has imposed four seasons upon southern Australia, defined by the calendar and a set of expectations that have little relation to local conditions. We have inherited a negative concept of winter from northern and western Europe, where snow, ice, and very short days are not only depressing, they are a challenge to survival. The cultural baggage of the European winter can blind us to the wonders of a warm temperate climate.

The Wadandi custodians of the Margaret River region have thousands of years of experience with local conditions. In the Noongar language, there are six seasons, based not on a standardised calendar, but on observable signals from plants, animals, and weather. The calendar ‘winter’ runs through June, July, and August. Wadandi people recognize more subtle seasonal shifts. Makuru is the first winter, when the rains really settle in around the beginning of June. Djalba begins around August, when the days are warming up but it is still windy and wet. The Busselton-based Undalup Association Inc. run fantastic workshops about Wadandi seasons, country and culture. Visit their website for more information, and you can follow their facebook page here.

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Ellensbrook Beach

There are multiple factors driving the climate in the south west. A belt of high pressure called the Sub Tropical Ridge cycles westward across the continent. This creates the generally predictable hot sunny weather. Around Antartica, a pattern called the Southern Annular Mode creates a series of westward flowing cold fronts. These are the rain-bearing systems that deliver most of the annual rainfall to the south-west. During summer, the high pressure systems block the cold fronts, keeping them south of the continent. In autumn, the high pressure belt usually shifts further north, allowing the cold fronts to move up from the Southern Ocean, bringing the wild windy weather and rainfall.

Another driver of local climate is the Indian Ocean Dipole, created by variation in temperatures on either side of the northern Indian Ocean. Some years, ocean temperatures are higher near Africa and cooler near Indonesia: in other years it is reversed, or even neutral. Similar to the El Nino pattern in the Pacific, The IOD affects the direction of airflow and moisture across the ocean, and influences the rainfall received in different regions.

ENSO, (or the El Nino/Nina) cycle is caused by air pressure and temperature variations in the Pacific Ocean, and impacts the east coast more than the west. However, the warmth from the Pacific flows between Australia and Indonesia and creates the Leeuwin current. This body of warm water flows south from the tropics in winter, making the ocean seem peculiarly warm compared to the icy-feeling temperatures in summer.

The Leeuwin Current brings warm water marine life to our shores. Sub tropical creatures like bluebottles, by the wind sailors and even turtles drift south with the current. They are then blown onshore by the westerly winds, along with other flotsam: multi-coloured seaweeds, plastics, driftwood, and dried boxfish. Winter is beachcombing season.

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Bluebottle or Pacific man-of-war, Physalia utriculus

Those extended, glorious spells of sunny weather in late autumn and winter are one of the symptoms of climate change. Over the last few decades, rainfall in the south-west has decreased. Water tables are dropping due to reduced recharge, and to human impact. Most streams and rivers have been dammed, further reducing environmental flow. On the east coast, drought is having a massive impact on farmers. For whole communities, water security has become an issue. The rain-bearing cold fronts of winter are an environmental and cultural requirement. So, rather than despair at the cold wet days, head out into the weather and re-invent the winter blues!