Sydney weather 2014: Stormy, mostly dry and exceptionally warm

Endless summer: A Bondi swimmer enjoys warmer temperatures that lasted well into May. Photo: Steven Siewert Tropical: December set a record for the number of thunderstorm days in a row. Photo: Geoff Jones
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Early start: NSW Rural Fire Service crews work to contain a large grass fine in Penrith in July. Photo: Wolter Peeters

Dramatic: Shelf clouds roll into Sydney. Photo: Nick Moir

Drought: It was a drier-than-average year in Sydney, but much worse out west for Coonamble farmer Neil Kennedy. Photo: Dean Sewell

Endless summer: A Bondi swimmer enjoys warmer temperatures that lasted well into May. Photo: Steven Siewert

Tropical: December set a record for the number of thunderstorm days in a row. Photo: Geoff Jones

Early start: NSW Rural Fire Service crews work to contain a large grass fine in Penrith in July. Photo: Wolter Peeters

Dramatic: Shelf clouds roll into Sydney. Photo: Nick Moir

Drought: It was a drier-than-average year in Sydney, but much worse out west for Coonamble farmer Neil Kennedy. Photo: Dean Sewell

Endless summer: A Bondi swimmer enjoys warmer temperatures that lasted well into May. Photo: Steven Siewert

Tropical: December set a record for the number of thunderstorm days in a row. Photo: Geoff Jones

Early start: NSW Rural Fire Service crews work to contain a large grass fine in Penrith in July. Photo: Wolter Peeters

Dramatic: Shelf clouds roll into Sydney. Photo: Nick Moir

Drought: It was a drier-than-average year in Sydney, but much worse out west for Coonamble farmer Neil Kennedy. Photo: Dean Sewell

Endless summer: A Bondi swimmer enjoys warmer temperatures that lasted well into May. Photo: Steven Siewert

Tropical: December set a record for the number of thunderstorm days in a row. Photo: Geoff Jones

Early start: NSW Rural Fire Service crews work to contain a large grass fine in Penrith in July. Photo: Wolter Peeters

Dramatic: Shelf clouds roll into Sydney. Photo: Nick Moir

Drought: It was a drier-than-average year in Sydney, but much worse out west for Coonamble farmer Neil Kennedy. Photo: Dean Sewell

The calm, mild final few days of 2014 being lapped up by Sydneysiders and the throngs of tourists belie a year of weather extremes for the city.

Two record bouts of thunderstorms, destructive wind gusts reaching cyclonic-strength, once-in-a-century downpours, and even October snowfalls in the Blue Mountains on Sydney’s western fringe were among the highlights that cheered weather geeks but dismayed commuters battling to get home.

Perhaps less memorable, but at least as compelling for climate watchers, was another year of exceptional warmth.

With a day to go, the city’s average maximum temperature will come in a shade under 23.5 degrees. That tally makes 2014 Sydney’s second-hottest year – behind the 23.7-degree record set just the year before – in 156 years of records.

For Australia, this year will be the third-warmest in national records from 1910, behind only 2005 and the fresh peak also set in 2013, according to the Bureau of Meteorology.

“What made this year different from last was a single cool month, February,” said David Jones, head of climate monitoring at the bureau. “The tendency is for very few below-average months on a national scale.”

The relative lack of cold bursts, particularly during winter, is one of the clearest signals of climate change in Australia, climatologists say. For regions such as Sydney, that often means more outdoor activities such as swimming.

For instance, many outdoor pools extended their seasons well into May. In the past century and a half prior to 2014, the city had only had 21 days during the second half of May with maximums of at least 25 degrees. This year, Sydney scored seven more.

Sydney also ended the month with a heatwave lasting 13 days – based on a string of at least three days with temperatures in the warmest 10 per cent for those days – almost double the previous record of seven such days set in August 1995, according to the University of UNSW.

For the first half of the year, Sydney had 162 days of 20 degrees or warmer weather, beating the previous record in 2004 of 157.

However, the downside of another relatively mild winter and the ramping up of background temperatures means the bursts of warmth when they arrive from inland Australia can quickly send the mercury rising to uncomfortable levels.

Sydney, for instance, in late September posted its earliest consecutive days above 32 degrees. By November, western regions of the city such as Bankstown were recording 40-plus days, while Penrith hit 44.9 degrees and Richmond 45.3 – setting new highs.

The bushfire season also got off to an early start, with the Rural Fire Service reporting 167 bush and grass fires in just four days in July.

By December, though, a shift in the weather patterns brought some relief although high humidity levels at times made it feel more like Darwin. Sydney Airport recorded seven days of thunderstorms in a row, beating three previous five-day bouts in the Decembers of 1955, 1992, and 2007, the bureau said.

Even with the occasional heavy rain dumps, Sydney’s rain tally for 2014 is likely to fall shy of 900 millimetres, or about three-quarters of the long-run average.

Brett Dutschke, senior meteorologist at Weatherzone, sees little let-up in terms of unusual warmth for Sydney – and much of the country:  “It’s highly likely the first half of next year will be warmer than average.”

Near-El Nino conditions in the Pacific, unusually warm waters around much of Australia, and a delayed monsoon are among the factors at play, he said. “Northern and central Australia are at an increased risk of being hotter than normal and that often flows to the south.”

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