Jamie Morton is the NZ Herald's science reporter.

Climate change could recreate horror drought

The 2013 drought that parched the soils of farms like this one in Northland cost the country $1.3 billion. Photo: File
The 2013 drought that parched the soils of farms like this one in Northland cost the country $1.3 billion. Photo: File

Researchers have created a model to reveal how climate change could combine the same weather patterns that led to a $1.3 billion drought.

The drought, that left much of the country brown over the 2012-13 summer, was the worst in 70 years in some regions, and was the result of slow-moving or "blocking" high pressure systems over the Tasman Sea and New Zealand over summer.

A new study led by Victoria University researchers measured the likelihood of extreme weather patterns occurring in modern day New Zealand compared to weather patterns in the late nineteenth century.

"We used new statistical techniques to examine the specific types of weather systems which passed over New Zealand during the 2013 summer drought," said Luke Harrison, who carried out the work alongside Professor Dave Frame.

They then used climate models to evaluate whether they were more likely to occur in the present day, when compared with the late nineteenth century.

"Our results show that due to changes in climate over the last 130 years, in response to both greenhouse gas emissions and ozone depletion, weather patterns such as those seen in the 2013 drought were 20 percent more likely to occur in the present day than in the late 1800s."

In another finding, the researchers showed there was a 50 per cent greater chance of exceptionally high pressure systems occurring over New Zealand in summer than was the case a century ago.

Harrison said the drought had a huge impact on New Zealand; according to Treasury estimates, it cost the economy at least $1.3 billion.

"It's also an important case study to help New Zealanders understand how the nature of extreme events is changing for New Zealand," he said.

"We are already seeing changes in the frequency of extreme weather over New Zealand due to a changing climate.

"The results from our research are yet another sign that we can expect droughts more frequently in the future and that, when they occur, they are likely to be more intense."

By looking at the properties of the drought in several different ways, the researchers hoped the in-depth detail would be useful for primary industries' planning in anticipation of future New Zealand summers in a warming world.

The collaborative study was published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres.

- NZ Herald

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