Jamie Morton

Jamie Morton is science reporter at the NZ Herald.

How pukeko behaviour can indicate the weather ahead

When pukeko are observed heading for higher ground, Northland iwi Ngati Wai will expect a storm and possible flooding. Photo / Amos Chapple. Buy this print on NewsPixNZ NZH-1024055
When pukeko are observed heading for higher ground, Northland iwi Ngati Wai will expect a storm and possible flooding. Photo / Amos Chapple. Buy this print on NewsPixNZ NZH-1024055

What do pukeko, blue cod or pohutukawa have to do with what weather is on its way?

While modern state-of-the-art high-resolution forecasting models, like those run by Niwa's supercomputer, have demonstrated significant accuracy and continue to improve each year, mother nature can tell us even more about the weather ahead - just by observing patterns and sequences.

Using environmental indicators to anticipate local weather and climate outcomes is common practice among many indigenous people around the world, including Maori.

By observing patterns and sequences in natural events - such as the behaviour of birds, the blooming of certain trees and flowers, and the movements of the stars, Maori have long used environmental indicators to forecast local weather and climate - helping to manage daily and seasonal activities.

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Traditional indicators to forecast weather and climate vary from place to place because of georaphy, different landscapes and seascapes, and between iwi or hapu.

For example - central North Island iwi Ngai Tuhoe use the sun to predict approaching storms.

When a vivid halo encircles the sun, the expected outcome is a storm approaching.

A pale and dim halo encircling the sun suggests a storm is far away.

When pukeko are observed heading for higher ground, Northland iwi Ngati Wai will expect a storm and possible flooding.

South Island iwi Kai Tahu predict that a long, hot summer will follow when the ti kouka (cabbage tree) flowers early and profusely.

Often more than one indicator is used to forecast weather or climate in the days, months and seasons ahead.

Where there are discrepancies among the indicators, a consensus-based approach is usually taken.

If the majority of indicators point in a given direction then a forecast is most often made in that direction - in a similar way to probabilistic seasonal forecasting methods that rely on consensus amongst different computer models to forecast changes in climate.

NIWA environmental scientist Darren King has been studying traditional Maori methods for predicting weather and seasonal conditions with kaumatua (elders) from across Aotearoa, and says modern and traditional forecasting systems can complement each other.
"Using Maori knowledge to forecast local weather and climate reflects the Maori worldview that all things are connected by whakapapa (genealogy) and that subtle natural linkages in the environment can reveal much about atmospheric conditions," Mr King said.

"Climate has always been important to Maori. It influences which plants, trees and birds are found in various parts of the country and it affects winds, waves and ocean currents.

"This knowledge has not only been vital to survival - by helping whanau to prepare and plan for weather hazards and climate variability, but also influences decisions about when to plant, harvest or fish.

"Learning more about the Maori knowledge system can contribute to better understanding of local weather and climate changes as well as promote awareness of the inherent linkages between people and the natural world.

"Lessons such as these are critical for informing adaptation strategies for the future."

Environmental indicators are still used by many indigenous peoples around the world in the same way - for example, indigenous groups in northern India predict the onset of the monsoon in June or July using environmental indicators such as the blooming of the golden shower tree and the direction of the local winds.

Farmers in Peru use the mid-year appearance of the Pleiades star cluster to forecast the timing and quantity of precipitation in the wet season, months later.

Accuracy of the seasonal forecasts is around 65 per cent - exceeding the accuracy of modern scientific forecasts with similar outlook periods by 5 - 10 per cent. Similar studies are taking place in Australia and Samoa.

Forecasting the weather, the traditional Maori way

Sun (Ra): When a vivid halo encircles the sun, a storm is approaching. If a pale and dim halo encircles the sun, a storm is far away (Ngai Tuhoe, north east central North Island)

Milky Way (Mangaroa): When Milky Way is curved, bad weather is likely. When Mangaroa is straight, fine weather is expected. (Kai Tahu, eastern South Island)

Blue Cod (Rawaru): When stones are in the belly of the fish, bad weather is coming (Ngati Koata, northern South Island)

Waves (Nga ngaru): When there is a deep sound of breaking waves up the valley, rainfall or poor weather is approaching (Te Roroa, north western North Island)

Sea kelp (Pakake): When there is furling or unfurling of hanging kelp, rainfall or a storm is on the way (Ngati Wai, northeast North Island)

Pukeko: When pukeko head for higher ground, an imminent storm or flooding is coming. (Ngati Wai, northeast North Island)

Kaka: When Kaka begin acting up, twisting and squawking above the forest, a storm is on the way. (Ngati Pare, northeast North Island)

Ruru (Morepork): When the shrill cries of more than one ruru can be heard calling to each other at night, rain or poor weather is coming. (Ngati Pare, northeast North Island)

Cabbage tree (Ti kouka): If there is early or profuse flowering, a long hot summer follows. (Kai Tahu, eastern South Island)

Pohutukawa: If flowering starts on the upper branches and progresses downwards, a cold and winter like season will follow. But if flowering starts on the lower branches and progresses upwards, a warm and pleasant season lies ahead. (Te Arawa, northern central North Island)

Godwit (Kuaka): The arrival of the kuaka means the season of warming begins. (Ngai Tuhoe, northeastern central North Island).

Moon (Marama): If the moon is lying on its back in the first five nights of the lunar month, a month or rainfall is ahead. (Te Whanau a Apanui, eastern North Island)

Matariki (Pleiades): If the stars of Matariki appear wide apart, warmer seasonal temperatures are expected. The stars appear closer together, cooler temperatures are expected. (Ngai Tuhoe, northeastern central North Island)

- NZ Herald

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