Ice cold in Canberra

Frost covered trees in a snow-covered field.

In our last winter, the weather conditions were very different.

When we first told people we were moving to Canberra, non-Aussies would invariably ask where Canberra was, while Aussies would usually say something like: “What do you want to go there for? It’s freezing.”

But we’d seen the pictures of sunny Australia from afar, and had already gone through our wardrobes ditching thick jumpers and winter coats in anticipation of year-round pool-life in the lucky country.

So, now we are knee-deep in our first Canberra winter, how cold is it?

Well, the first thing to say is that, after 10 years of living in Scandinavia, we have a pretty high tolerance threshold before we declare anything to be officially cold. To give you some comparison, last winter in Denmark, we frequently saw temperatures of well below minus 10 degrees Celsius. In fact, there were weeks on end when the temperature never actually made it above freezing point.

At the same time, Scandinavian homes are built to handle this. Our old house had underfloor heating and triple glazing such that, even in the midst of a sub-zero spell, we would often need to open a few windows to get the indoor temperature to a more comfortable level.

A mother and child on a frozen lake.

Playing on a frozen, snow-covered lake in our old home town.

So far, this winter in Canberra, I think temperatures have dropped below zero once, maybe twice, and even then, only in the small hours of the night. I’ve certainly never seen frost on the ground, or needed to scrape it off the car, and even though it’s mid-winter, daytime temperatures will often reach the mid-to-high teens.

So we must be toasty, right? Wrong.

To move here from Scandinavia is to appreciate everything that is right about northern European house-building skills. Canberra houses are not built to retain warmth. The gaps between doors and their frames are large enough to make an eastern European carmaker feel smug.

The heating – largely blasts of hot air from ceiling ducts (and remember, heat rises), to coin a phrase from Blackadder, is about as effective as a cat-flap in an elephant house. To get toasted, you stand under the vent Star Trek transporter-style. To freeze, you move a few centimetres to the left or right. Radiators or underfloor — and therefore, ambient heating, seem rare here.

And that’s to say nothing of the rickety, single-glazed windows which leech heat and provide zero insulation. I am dreading the arrival of our gas bill this quarter.

But I have to reserve a special mention for a place in Canberra with its own particular climate – the Canberra Stadium. As season-ticket holders for local rugby league team, the Canberra Raiders, we can attest to the special, isolated micro-climate that the stadium builders have managed to establish.

Canberra Stadium is a concrete bowl, sunk into the landscape and, presumably, with some kind of underground piping that is connected, across the miles, with one of Antarctica’s subterranean lakes, providing a constant flow of ice-cold water, cooling the stadium’s superstructure to a minimum of ten degrees lower than anywhere in the surrounding area.

A rugby game in progress at Canberra Stadium.

The open-topped fridge known as Canberra Stadium.

It really is a feat of genius. Over the course of a couple of hours, the cold seeps up through the ground, into the concrete, grips your feet in its icy fingers and creeps throughout your body with ghostly coldness.

When the football World Cup is staged in Qatar, they should sidestep all the shenanigans about whether to hold the tournament in summer or winter and just hire the lads who built Canberra Stadium to construct their facilities. No one would overheat, I guarantee it.

So, is Canberra cold? In truth, not really. Not by the standards of anyone who has lived anywhere that has a proper winter. But is it cold in Canberra? Absolutely. It’s bloody freezing.

12 thoughts on “Ice cold in Canberra

  1. Hmmm, I’ve been in Canberra 42 years and since day one it has been a total mystery to me as to why houses here were never (unless by fluke) orientated to face north, let alone insulated or double-glazed. It’s bonkers. And so expensive to heat. And strangely, it was always accepted as normal by most of the population! Only in the last 5 years have we seen building codes change significantly.
    We’ve recently bought a 30-yo house with appalling extremes of heat/cold, and insulated/double-glazed it to within an inch of its life; we estimate the significant cost will pay itself off in about 5 years (hardly used the heating at all so far this year). I feel your pain and share your frustration!


    • I’m glad it’s not the bizarre observations of a newbie. We have friends who has a new house built (in Crace) and they told me they were able to specify all that stuff from the beginning and are so glad they did. It’s making us lean towards building rather than buying when we reach the end of our rental period.


  2. I’m still not sure after 20 years in Oz and 10 in CBR why central heating has not caught on and why houses are built so flimsily! We had undertile heating put in a year ago and it is great, if a little exxy to run. Have to say that winter in Sydney is worse…quite miserable. No heating bar a small plug in job, and you run from room to room!


  3. One thing I remembered…if you haven’t seem it already is the Aldi ski sale…ski clothing, boots, thermals etc at a third of the price of normal ski shops. I only found about it this year (it happened last weekend), and I’m rejoicing at the fact there will be no more ice blocks on the end of my legs on the sidelines of any sporting field! May be all sold out now, but put it in your calendar for next. And then you can plan a trip to the snow as well.


    • That’s a good tip, thanks. We’ve been togged up in puffa jackets and walking boots but, Canberra Stadium aside, we can mostly handle the outdoor cold. It’s being cold in our own home that seems a bridge too far, and wearing ski suits indoors while the heating is on full blast is contrary to every preconception we had about life in Australia.


  4. I used to work at Canberra Stadium and I can definitley attest to the micro-climate there. I once worked outside in a t-shirt (I was in the canteeens up in the stands) and it started snowing!


    • It’s quite astonishing actually, isn’t it? I was there yesterday for the Raiders/Bulldogs game and it was quite toasty, but once the sun dropped behind the stadium, the temperature plummeted pretty quickly. We have a few night games coming up in the next few weeks and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see a flurry of the white stuff. Mind you, if you were working in the food area, you probably had the best job of all on those cold days — I’d imagine the ovens kept you and your colleagues quite warm.


  5. I agree with Frances. Before here I lived in Sydney. It’s not as cold as Canberra but I was much colder there than I’m here. The two houses I’ve owned here haven’t been perfect but they’ve both had a certain amount of decent heating (neither coming from the ceiling) and some living areas facing north but the next place will have to be even better in terms of passive solar.


    • Deciding to rent first has certainly helped us to compile a ‘wish list’ of things to look for when we eventually decide to buy. Life’s too short to spend every winter cold.


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