Till your well runs dry: NZ drought hits record levels

by Gareth on March 11, 2013

Australia may have had an extraordinary “Angry Summer“, but New Zealand’s been having a bit of a cracker too. Prolonged warm and sunny weather over much of the country has driven North Island soil moisture deficits to levels not seen for at least 70 years (see map at left). Official drought status — which means farmers are eligible for various forms of government assistance — has been declared in Northland, South Auckland, Coromandel, Bay of Plenty, Waikato, and Hawke’s Bay. The Manawatu and Rangitikei regions have also asked government for drought status. Most of the North Island is also subject to total fire bans — another first for this dusty summer. Preliminary estimates of economic losses are already heading towards $1 billion.

Stuff.co.nz noted the obvious climate connection:

Long, dry spells are forecast to double by 2040 as temperatures continue to rise and New Zealand heads towards a more Mediterranean climate.

Experts warn it could spell the end for farming as we know it and may cost the country billions of dollars in drought relief each year before practices are adjusted.

“This is historic,” said climate scientist Jim Salinger, who has calculated that the amount of rain needed for grass growth was the highest since records began. “It’s like comparing your income against expenditure in your cheque book. And we are in deficit.”

Jim Renwick, in an opinion piece for The Press noted:

Looking to the future, the risk of drought in New Zealand is on the rise. The persistent high pressure systems typical of the subtropics are already moving our way and this trend looks set to continue. The “subtropical high pressure belt” is where the world’s deserts are located, and that belt is edging our way as the tropical region expands outwards under a warming climate.

Combine that with higher temperatures, increased evaporation, lower soil moisture, and we have a recipe for at least doubling the risk of drought in many of the drier parts of the country by late this century, possibly by mid-century in places. A recent report for the Ministry of Primary Industries projected an increase in drought occurrence for almost all of the country, even under an optimistic scenario for greenhouse gas emissions.

We’ve certainly been getting persistent high pressure systems. This surface pressure anomaly plot for the NZ region from mid January to a few days ago1 shows that a substantial blob of high pressure has been parked over us.

NZdroughtNCEPpressure201301

The MetService blog has a (much) more detailed explanation of what’s been going on in the southern hemisphere’s atmosphere here.

Meanwhile, politicians have begun to reflect on the realities of the forecast of droughts happening more often — warning that “continued drought support might be unsustainable“:

Finance Minister [Bill] English, standing in for John Key while he is visiting Latin America, said that while the Government was providing support now, this may not be sustainable if severe droughts became regular events.

“If there’s going to be more droughts, more regularly, farming practices will simply have to adapt,” he told TVNZ’s Breakfast.

“We’ve got research in place for instance to find more drought resistant grasses and farmers have for years been adapting their management practices.

“That would have to continue because . . . Government simply can’t support them to maintain practices in the face of continuous droughts, if that’s what happens.”

If that’s what happens? The government knows exactly what NIWA’s modelling of future climate has to say about the likelihood of increased frequency and severity of droughts, and has done for years. A prudent government might have done some thinking about risk and sensible strategies for the future, and considered the wisdom of encouraging diversification away from water intensive and drought sensitive agricultural systems such as dairying.

Unfortunately, our government has preferred to gut the emissions trading scheme and dismember all but the bare bones of a rational national response to the climate challenge. By delaying a carbon price signal for agriculture, the government locks the near term NZ economy into high carbon, high water use agricultural systems — the very worst outcome.

Meanwhile, the drought isn’t all bad news. Looking beyond the bones of the cow’s arse, the national grape harvest is looking good (perhaps great)2, and apple growers aren’t complaining either. That’s what diversification and adaptation are all about…

[Peter Tosh]

  1. From the Earth System Research Lab’s NCEP reanalysis operational plotting page. []
  2. The nets are on, and there’s a potentially exciting crop of pinot noir ripening at Limestone Hills — the last thing I want is drought-breaking rain, at least not before the main harvest is in (mid April in Waipara). []

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

eltoro March 12, 2013 at 12:14 am

Unfortunately for us our illustrious Prime Minister is an ex Wall Street trader and a self made `corporate jock` with a view that he can fix things with wealth so lets `dig, drill and do whatever it takes` (BAU) to bring us into surplus then we can deal with this `climate change thingy that the greens keep rattling on about`.
Decisions made with the best of tax payer funded advise of course. Regrettably `advisers and consultants` tend to tell you what they think you want to hear especially if they want to stay on the Governments gravy train.
So no worries John, this thing (if its true) won`t cause any real strife until 2100 so go for it boyo.
Remember ” We can`t fix this on our own so we will be a close follower, not a leader.” (Who we are following and how close is a mystery).
You can get away with that while all the crap happens in someone else`s backyard but now the “Inconvenient Truth” is upon us.
In my ever so humble opinion `Kiwi`s` over the years have tended to be leaders in all fields of endevour, not followers.
What seems to be lacking is the ability to kick the `ad visors` out the door and act on what you see and know is evolving before your eyes globally.
Unfortunalty the Monktons of this world have ensured that `climate change` has become a polarizing issue and not somewhere politicians want to go if they want to stay elected.
So good luck folks, make your own arrangements for the future because you are pretty much on your own. As the Dept. of Climate Change manuscript recommends, ADAPT. (If you can).

FlatFish March 12, 2013 at 7:50 am

It is also good to see how we so successfully balancing the economy against the environment.

The proposed changes to the RMA, putting the economy first, should help significantly improve this situation as we can then employ so many more people in farming, filming, fishing and fleecing tourists….

Yeah right!

Thomas March 12, 2013 at 8:07 am

Yea, and with advisers to the Government such as Dave over in the Monckton discussion (if that indeed is David Frame) who operates from the premise that resources are not owned by the public (that would be “socialism”) but by private interests and that democratic processes leading to democratic governance over resource use and the consequences of the same equates to some nefarious “red brigades marching”… who can blame them really….

BTW: how far have we come already when the word “Socialism” is a trigger word for the Word Press comment moderation censorship code as each time I refer to the same, my comments get stuck there.

SCM March 12, 2013 at 10:11 am

That big high is keeping things pretty toasty on this side of the Tasman too, 37 in Melbourne yesterday and the same again today. Too hot to sleep at night too.

noelfuller March 12, 2013 at 11:14 pm

We have not got past 27°C in Auckland and for the last few days there has been a gentle sou-westerly breeze. My zinc-alume roof is painted white which seems to increase the amount of dew condensed on cool clear nights, about 20 litres per night just at present. When the breeze is in the north or NE there can be no dew at all. On a winters morning, clear & SW breeze, I often catch at least 34 litres, this being as much dew as I can specifically measure. About half goes into a tank and the other half to the garden. Since the last shower I estimate I have gained about 350 litres of dew in the tanks.

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