Windy Wellington: a title undeserved?

Tackling Wellington's bad weather rep

Last updated 11:26 31/05/2014
Wellington
KENT BLECHYNDEN/Fairfax NZ

WHEN BAD IS GOOD: As a keen windsurfer, Chris Brown looks forward to Wellington's worst weather days - but he doesn't get all that many.

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The sunniest summers of any major New Zealand town, fewer rainy days than Auckland, and gradually easing winds - surely this can't be wet and windy Wellington?

But a group of the city's climate enthusiasts say the actual numbers show just that. While its reputation around the country may suggest it's a grey and damp place, businessman Steve Maggs says the capital has plenty of sunshine and comparatively mild temperatures.

What especially riles Maggs is hearing that people choose to live in other cities such as Auckland for the weather. "Wellington can hold its own against them."

Thirty years of stats he and fellow climate buffs Martin Jenkins, John Sherborne and Nick Sawicki collated from the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research show the capital can get up to two weeks less rain annually than Auckland.

Figures from Niwa up till last year show Auckland now has fewer rainy days than it used to - but annually Auckland residents still have to zip up that rainjacket for about four days more than Wellingtonians do.

The capital also gets more than 50 hours of extra sunshine on top of the country's biggest city, on average. "You hear quite often people say, 'We don't live in Wellington for the weather'. But if they had more information, they might," Maggs says.

For the most part, the Wellington region is pretty average, climate- wise. Temperature-wise, it's not too hot and not too cold - and for Maggs that's just right.

He admits the one weather issue that can't be ignored is the wind. "We know there's a lot of wild weather, there's quite a lot of wind - and it can be pretty unpleasant at times."

But the numbers from 1981 show strong gusts hit the region less than one day a week, and just 11 per cent of the time it reaches over 38kmh, Maggs says. And the day may even come when the city questions its "windy Wellington" nickname.

"There's been a trend that wind has been decreasing over the last 10 years."

Apart from getting a few things sorted in the Wellington-Auckland rivalry, Maggs thinks a campaign to correct the capital's status as a bad-weather centre will help the city.

He believes skilled immigrants and growing businesses might make a move to Wellington if they understood the reality of its climate. "Surveys show people rate a reasonable climate as a main consideration in choosing a new city."

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Metservice meteorologist John Law wonders if Wellingtonians' preoccupation with the weather might be partly responsible for some of the misapprehensions.

"I would say Kiwis in general are very keen on the weather. I didn't think anyone was more keen on the weather than the Brits."

As a recent migrant to Wellington, he thinks the region has a lot going for it.

"I came to Wellington a couple of days before I moved here, and it was stunningly lovely.

"It's been interesting - I've had more gale-force wind events since I've been here than I have in the UK. But I don't think it ruins Wellington. I think it's just a nice aspect."

With the "Wellington Blown Away" sign near the airport, and the wind sculptures dotting Cobham Dr and the city, the gusts have become a part of its arty, quirky culture, Law says.

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And it's worth seeing the more unpleasant aspects of the climate as just one side of a two-sided coin.

Law explains that the winds concentrate over the city and Cook Strait because air is funnelled in from the west between the Tararuas and Southern Alps.

But these are the same hills that protect us from the cloud - and lead the city to claim more sunshine hours than Auckland.

The capital's infamous breezes also keep away those chilly mornings. "[We get] very few frost days in Wellington, compared to even over the hill and the likes of Masterton."

Being surrounded by the oceans means we don't get the extreme summer heat or winter freeze seen in the continents, but it causes lots of moisture to build in the air, spawning low pressure systems, famous for barrelling across New Zealand with their nasty, changeable weather.

Even so, there seems to be a silly idea out there that stormy rainclouds only concentrate over the capital, former mayor and current regional council chairwoman Fran Wilde says.

"When we get bad weather, someone is having it before or after us."

And she thinks Wellington residents may be just as much to blame for the bad reputation as anyone from outside the region.

"I think Wellingtonians are just conditioned to think we have worse weather than other people. There's always been that feeling that it's a great city, crap weather."

Wilde hopes people might see the actual numbers and start sticking up for the capital's weather. "Stop apologising, Wellington, and embrace it."

But South Coast resident Joe Reich says anyone looking for appreciation of Wellington's climate can take a peek at social media.

Residents and visitors are seeing the beauty of the city on both its good days and its bad, if the often spectacular photos sent to his @LyallBayNZ Twitter account are any proof.

"I know it can get a bit repetitive with everyone posting the sunset shots or the 'You Can't Beat Wellington On A Good Day' photo, but Wellington has embraced the weather. People right across the age groups actually enjoy what we have," Reich says.

"I know about the bad reputation, but to tell you the truth I can't understand it - because it's a challenge; it keeps us on our toes.

"Being out in the weather and a good storm - I love it; it's one heck of a feeling."

In future, such an outlook may be a good thing. The more unpleasant aspects of the region's weather, particularly the intense southerlies, are likely to come bowling through the city more frequently, predictions to the end of the century show.

While no-one has a crystal ball for the future of Wellington's weather, one thing agreed on is that it will be warmer - a likely rise is about 2 degrees Celsius over a century.

While it seems the city's thermometers can barely hit the 25C mark even in mid-summer, the capital in the 2090s will get an extra two to four weeks of such temperatures.

December through February will also see less rain on the Kapiti Coast, according to estimates.

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Niwa climate scientist Andrew Tait also has some tentative good news for summertime fans. "Some models are saying we might get a slackening in the westerly winds in summer. That would be appreciated, I'm sure, in Wellington.

"For the winter and spring seasons, there might be more westerly-type wind."

While predictions vary greatly with factors such as how much greenhouse gas will be emitted in the coming years, one thing Tait is fairly sure of is that the capital will not be losing its gusty reputation in a hurry.

"There's nothing to say the types of weather systems that lead to windy conditions in Wellington are going to change.

"So I think we'll probably still end up being known for our lovely winds."

'YOU CAN'T BEAT US ON A BAD DAY'

The winds have barrelled through Wellington over the past few weeks, but windsurfer Chris Brown says it's rare to get this much, even in the windy capital.

His Mana surf shop Ocean Outfitters hires out windsurfing and paddleboarding gear, so the wind makes a big difference to day-to-day business, he says.

Windsurfers need about 20 knots (37kmh) of wind to go out. The growing sport of paddleboarding is often taken up as a low-wind alternative.

"We find we're paddleboarding a lot more than we windsurf. It highlights the fact that it's not that windy all the time."

On average, the area may get breezes strong enough to windsurf "a couple of time a week - if that".

Spring is typically the time of year Wellington's winds hit the hardest, but things change year by year, he says. Last year, the expected winds were a no-show.

As for the climate keeping people away, Brown sees things slightly differently.

"A lot of people have made some pretty big lifestyle choices to be in Wellington, so they can windsurf and kiteboard.

"For us, you can't beat Wellington on a bad day."

- The Dominion Post

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