Saturday, June 27, 2009

Goyder's Line

In nature, there are no rewards or punishments; there are consequences. -Horrace Annesley Vachell (1861-1955), British writer

An unusual contribution to the Australian weather scene during the 19th century was made by a man who was not primarily occupied with meteorology, but was in fact the Surveyor General of South Australia during the mid 1860's.

Above: George Woodroffe Goyder in 1869 (Click on image to enlarge) Photo: Wikipedia Commons

George Woodroffe Goyder was a “small man of unimpeachable character” who had come to South Australia in 1851, and by dint of hard work and attention to detail had progressed through the Colonial Engineers Office to the prestigious position of Surveyor General in 1861.

Early in the 1860’s, much of the good farming land in South Australia had already been taken up, and the government was under great pressure to open up the vast tracts of land further north towards the Flinders Rangers. Accordingly, the Surveyor General was instructed to report on the feasibility of this enterprise.

Late in 1865, at the height of a severe drought, Goyder made several trips to the north of the state, travelling over 5000 km on horseback, and noting the type of vegetation and condition of the soils.

He returned and eventually defined a line on a map - to the south of which rainfall was deemed to be reliable enough for various agricultural pursuits, but to the north, conditions were considered suitable only for grazing.

This line, which came to be known as 'Goyder's Line' ran up the eastern side of Spencer's Gulf, along the southern flank of the Flinders Rangers and then southeast, passing near Peterborough, Jamestown, Burra and Swan Reach.

The approximate position of Goyder's Line (Click on image to enlarge)

Goyder's observation on the vegetation, which coincided roughly with the southern boundary of salt-bush country in the area, had led him to believe that outside his line, farming would not be sustainable because of insufficient rainfall.

This was a bold prediction, as firstly, no detailed rainfall records were then available on which to base his belief. Secondly, it was not what the politicians of the day wanted to hear, as it put added pressure on them to make the unpopular decision of keeping the back-blocks of South Australia closed to agriculture.

Predictably enough, Goyder's Line created a turmoil of tirade and controversy including Parliamentary debate, during which it was urged that the line be pushed further north, preferably out of South Australia altogether. The line was referred to by some as “Goyder’s Line of Foolery”. It was even suggested that Goyder was on the pay-roll of the pastoralists who wanted to protect their land from agricultural farming. This was a great injustice to Goyder who was a man of “stainless steel” integrity.

However, caving into this pressure, the Government went against Goyder's advice and allowed farming allotments to be bought up well north of his line and hundreds of people began wheat farms in the northern plains of South Australia. Wheat growing became general in the districts around Port Augusta during 1877 and 1878.

As with so many other areas of human endeavor, 'Lady Luck' seemed to smile on beginners, and for the next few years, good rains came and bumper wheat crops were produced from 'the Golden North'. Wheat bags were stacked “like mountains” beside the railway line for eventual transport to Port Augusta and shipping overseas.

What Goyder had forgotten, said the farmers, was the truth of the old saying "rain follows the plough", which was a relic from the European folkloric era. By breaking up the soil, so the theory went, more moisture was released into the air and became available for rainfall.

Encouraged by this apparent success, the South Australian Government surveyed new towns to be built in the general area, such as Hammond, Bruce, Cradock, Gordon, Johnburgh, Yatina, Wilson, Carrieton, Chapmanton, Farina, and Amyton. Yatina, in particular, was ear-marked for great things, and was expected to become the biggest settlement in South Australia outside of Adelaide.

Then reality rudely arrived. Protracted drought during the early 1880's forced many wheat farmers into ruin and the rest to their knees. Most eventually walked off their land and returned to Adelaide, disillusioned and embittered.

Derelict homesteads and abandoned farm machinery still dot the area as monuments to the fact that climate cannot be ignored and must be legislated for in our day to day activities. The proposed grand city of Yatina was never able to realise it’s potential, but survived as only a few buildings, including a hotel, standing in the middle of, for what is for the most part, a desert-like landscape.

The Yatina Hotel photographed in 1974. (Image from Alan Woodward, Wikipedia Commons - click to enlarge)

Goyder had been right of course, and he had made one of the early comments on the climatology of the continent, namely that most areas of South Australia have insufficient rain to support general agriculture.

This true-color NASA MODIS image taken on September 17, 2001 shows a green vegetation pattern that closely matches Goyder's Line
(Click on Image to enlarge)

It turned out that Goyder’s line corresponded roughly with the so called “Ten Inch Line” of average rainfall, or in more modern terms the 250 mm isohyet.

The Surveyor General, in performing his task with characteristic thoroughness, had also shown the folly of attempting to modify the climate by use of Parliamentary decree.

Goyder’s work was eventually officially recognised. Today we find Goyder's Lagoon on the Birdsville Track, Goyder Railway Station, Mount Woodroffe, the highest mountain in South Australia, Wheal Goyder, a copper mine near Wallaroo and on Kangaroo Island there is the Goyder Range and the Goyder Range Branch Creek.

Reference: Australia's Natural Disasters, Richard Whitaker, New Holland Publishing 2005
ISBN 1877069043

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