Top 5 Bizarre Sydney Phenomena

by Michelle Villamin

Let’s face it, Sydney is a gorgeous city. From its stunning architecture to its beautiful beaches and unique natural wildlife. But with summer getting more ferocious every year, springtime’s indecisive patchiness and climate change remaining a political hot potato – people can underestimate Mother Nature’s unpredictable authority.

Throughout the years Sydney siders have had some surreal scenes, which could easily be mistaken for an apocalyptic movie or a lucid dream. Here are some of the times where Mother Nature impressed us with the creation of some bizarre natural phenomenas in Sydney.

Red algal bloom across popular beaches (2012)


Clovelly Beach.

In this case an algal bloom, sometimes referred to as ‘red tides’, was the cause of this natural phenomenon that led to the closure of beaches from Sydney’s eastern suburbs all the way to Palm Beach in 2012.  Patches of water turned crimson when a specific algae population, we’re looking at you noctiluca scintillans, rapidly increased and gathered in certain areas.

These algal blooms usually generate blue/greenish tones and on occasions red, depending on what the algae feeds on. The blooms occur where the oceans are experiencing higher water temperatures and greater movements in the current and there is an upwelling of colder nutrient-rich water. Clovelly, Bondi Beach and Gordon’s Bay were closed, as the algae concentration was higher in these areas, making the waters appear blood red. While the algae are non-toxic, they can be high in ammonia and can cause skin irritation, where local beach goers and tourists alike were warned not to swim in these waters.

Sydney wakes to an apocalyptic dust storm (2009)


In September 2009, Sydney-siders awoke to a crimson sky that appeared to have been pulled out of a science fiction film set on Mars. The sky in Sydney and in some places in New South Wales and Queensland was engulfed in red due to a dust storm coming from central Australia. The cause behind this was from an intense low-pressure area that picked up a lot of dust from the very dry interior of Australia, with the wind carrying it out towards Eastern Australia and the dust settling in cities such as Sydney.

The storm was visible from space, being one of the worst dust storms New South Wales experienced in the past 70 years. Airports, schools, roads and pretty much every outdoors activity was closed or cancelled because of this red haze enveloping the sky. The familiar iconic Sydney landmarks were also almost blotted out by the heavy dust. Almost everyone stopped their daily morning rituals to admire such a surreal sight.

Ferocious hailstorm (1999)


Another unforgettable storm that Sydney experienced was the epic hailstorm of 1999. With an estimated 500,000 tonnes of hailstones that were dropped by the storm, it is known to be one of the costliest natural disaster in Australian insurance history. This hailstorm was classified as a supercell, meaning that it is a particular thunderstorm that is characterised by having a deep, continuous rotating updraft.

There was extensive damage along east coast of New South Wales, mainly affecting the eastern suburbs and the CBD where large, fast moving particles were being hurled towards the ground at up to 200km/h speeds. The total cost of insured damage from this destructive hailstorm was around AU$1.7 billion and around a total of AU$2.3 billion worth of uninsured damage, the most expensive natural disaster until that time. Sydney, today, still experiences the occasional hailstorm, but nothing quite like the gravity of this one.

Blue algae brings Avatar to Manly (2014)


Manly Beach.

Manly Beach had its own natural light show during an evening in August 2014, where there was an algae bloom that caused the crashing waves to light up into a neon blue glow. This natural phenomenon is known as bioluminescence. The cause of the alage alighting into blue is because of the waves crashing. The movement and turbulence of the water disturbs the algae, making them glow and leave a trail of neon blue. It is more common during spring and autumn where the ocean is full of nutrients for this organism to feed on and the blue radiance also indicates that it is well fed.

It is actually the same algae that turn oceans red during the day, but as the sun sets and if the algae haven’t been dispersed yet, it lights up the waters at night with an amazing iridescent blue glow. At night, that’s when the noctiluca scintillans show off why they are also referred to as ‘sea sparkle’. This glow-in-the-dark phenomenon attracted several passer byers and photographers closer to the beach to witness the bioluminescent light show, a natural sign marking the beginning of spring.

Bushfires taint Sydney skies (2013)


Bondi Beach.

Australia is known for its bush fires, but nothing quite like this. In October 2013, New South Wales suffered through one of the worst bush fires since the 1960s. With around one hundred fires burning across the state, it created a massive smoke cloud that dramatically covered the sky, turning the sun into a deep red. Sydney was experiencing one of the warmest springs and with high fuel loads, along with the dry and windy weather, it provided dangerous conditions in fuelling fires.

The ash particles turned the blue spring sky into an eerie orange tinge as the dark smoke cloud loomed past the CBD and over to the beaches. This spectacular yet ominous view could not be missed, making everything around Sydney look scarily malefic.

Honorable Mention: Stormy Days


Bondi Beach.

A more recent time when Sydney skies turned apocalyptic was the thunderstorm that seemed to literally roll through Sydney and its surroundings. While Sydney experiences plenty of storms, it isn’t too often where the thunderstorm has a massive and distinct shelf cloud making the sky eerily dark. Shelf clouds are low horizontal cloud formations that are attached to the parent cloud that’s creating the thunderstorm. They are usually formed at the leading edge of a gust front, which is created from downdrafts from a storm.

The outer part of the shelf cloud has a rising cloud motion that made this cloud look like a giant wave going through Sydney, while underneath it, took on an unsettled and thundery appearance. This remarkable formation cloaked the Sydney skyline, warning everyone was it was about to bring, torrential rain and intense lightning. However that didn’t stop onlookers from standing in awe and quickly snapping photos of this majestic storm rolling through, before running for shelter.


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Xplore Sydney Copyright 2014


  1. These are some amazing photographs. The dust storm was October 2009..

  2. Anne O'Brien says:

    I looked into the dust storm origins, and the soil came from eroded agricultural land rather than Central Australia. This is what I wrote in a recent article about soil:

    “In September 2009, the residents of Sydney woke to a dust storm that enveloped the city in a surreal orange light. Social media and online news outlets were ablaze with images of the ‘apocalyptic‛ dawn. Scientists quoted in newspaper articles reassured the public that such an event was ‚natural‛; that it was unlikely to be related to global warming, and that farmers’ land management practices had improved markedly since the regular dust storms of seventy years ago. The origin of the dust was said to be the Lake Eyre Basin, an arid region in South Australia that has been desert since before European settlement. A later research paper published in 2011 by Lim and others analysed the dust (including bacterial DNA) and traced it to Australia’s agricultural food bowl: ‚the highly erodible and drought-stricken Mallee and Riverina regions of Victoria and central NSW‛. These regions lie within the Murray-Darling Basin, some of the most intensively cultivated and degraded land in Australia.”

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