Who stuffed up summer?

Last updated 05:00 15/01/2012
In Nelson it was wet, wet, wet, as was the case throughout the North Island.
MARION VAN DIJK/Fairfax NZ
RAIN RAIN: In Nelson it was wet, wet, wet, as was the case throughout the North Island.

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Early forecasts predicted a great summer, so what went wrong? Marika Hill and Lois Cairns investigate.

For most of the country, barring the deep south, summer was drowned in a flood of bad weather, washing out holiday-makers and homeowners alike.

It has left those in the North Island asking where the sun has gone. But down south drought conditions are causing havoc.

So what happened to the quintessential Kiwi summer of beaches, barbecues and basking in just the right amount of sun?

Scientists are pointing the finger at a tumultuous lady called La Nina.

Dr James Renwick, a Niwa principal scientist, said this weather pattern has parked rain front after rain front over the country and will continue to do so for the next couple of months.

The North Island was hit by more rain than normal in December, with Auckland residents living through the wettest December on record.

Throughout summer La Nina will continue to bring wet weather to the north, and hot weather to the south.

Yet just a few months ago weather scientists predicted a long, hot summer for the country.

Victoria University philosophy lecturer Dan Weijers said such balmy predictions set people up for a summer of disappointment.

"People will feel robbed. They thought they were going to have a good summer."

The expectation of sunny weather actually worsens the bleak effects of a rained-out holiday, he said. Research shows bad weather brings down your mood and satisfaction with life.

Office workers will have trudged back to their desks with these gloomy feelings, rather than the usual tan and beach snaps.

"If you are feeling bad, think about those in a worse situation. It puts your own experience in persepective," Weijers said.

Farmers in the lower South Island will be feeling the stress as water runs out in many places and drought-like conditions push the fire risk sky-high. Rainfall was less than half the normal amount in Southland, Otago, and parts of the West Coast.

And in those areas the dry conditions are beginning to bite.

In the Queenstown Lakes District, water restrictions are in place in some areas and authorities are urging property owners to clear overgrown sections amid concern the hot, dry summer has turned the region into a tinder box.

A large scrub fire has already threatened homes near Wanaka and there are fears more blazes could occur despite the total fire ban now in place.

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"Conditions are extremely dry," said Queenstown's principal rural fire officer Gordon Bailey. "It will take a substantial amount of rain over a long period to decrease the fire risk."

It is a similar story in Southland and parts of Clutha where the Southern Region Fire Authority has suspended all existing fire permits and imposed a ban on burning rubbish, using incinerators, or cooking outdoors with open braziers or hangi in all townships within the Southland District, Gore District and Invercargill City.

Several recent fires had started from people using machinery in dry grass or roadsides.

A Southland farmer was forced to drive his flaming tractor into a lake after a grass fire.

In the small Southland towns of Riverton and Ohai, water supplies are running so low restrictions have had to be put in place to protect public health and the towns' fire-fighting capabilities.

In Franz Josef, water supplies are also running dangerously low. January and February are traditionally the busiest months of the year for the town, which welcomes around 1 million visitors annually to the nearby glaciers, and demand for water is close to outstripping supply as the area enjoys one of its warmest, driest summers on record.

Local businessman Marcel Fekkes said the town had lost its water supply for about 90 minutes last Monday night, forcing bars and restaurants to close, but the supply had since been restored.

"All of the town's tourist facilities are operational and no services are reduced, however, with the good weather set to continue, townsfolk have been asked to be responsible with water use and use common sense water conservation measures," Fekkes said.

In parts of the Westland and Grey districts, rural residents are having to get water trucked in because their tank supplies have almost dried up.

Niwa's climate experts say La Nina is expected to fade away come autumn, but there is no guarantee she won't return to ruin next summer.

Renwick said it was difficult to predict what will happen in six months, but Niwa would have a better idea come winter.

He warned increasing global temperatures could bring more uncertain summers.

"Climate change means we should expect more [extreme weather] in the future."

The good news if La Nina does return, she may not be as vengeful on Kiwi holiday goers and Southland farmers.

Last summer, the strong La Nina did not produce the same amount of dryness in the south, or rain in the north.

- Sunday Star Times

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