Volatile weather 'the new normal'

SIMON DAY
Last updated 05:00 07/07/2013

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Get used to it. That "once in 20 years" freak storm is forecast to happen again sooner than you think.

Experts say the wild weather of recent months - heavy snowstorms and flooding in the South Island, and stormy winds in Wellington - is the new normal, and the country needs to prepare for more temperamental weather as the climate warms.

Based on median predictions for temperature increases over the next century, New Zealand's climate will get drier in some regions, wetter in others, and higher winds and more cyclones will occur, Niwa says.

Extreme winds are likely to increase across New Zealand in winter and decrease in summer, especially for the Wellington region and the eastern South Island.

In many parts of the North Island and the eastern parts of the South Island longer droughts are expected.

"We might expect to see, not every year, but on average another couple of weeks of drought each year," said David Wratt, Niwa chief scientist.

Wratt warned the wisest thing to do for New Zealand was to was "plan accordingly".

Winds that reached over 200kmh during last month's Wellington storm left more than 30,000 homes without power and heavy rain washed out large parts of the capital's railway lines.

While a number of city councils have climate change action plans, local governments need to start taking action immediately, climate change advisers say.

"The longer we delay, the more our options become limited," said Chris Cameron, principal climate change adviser for Wellington City Council.

Rebuilding storm-damaged infrastructure without adding further resilience would not provide long-term solutions, Cameron said.

"There is a gap between the level and the consequence of the issue and the response," he said.

The long-term cost needed to be measured against the short-term needs of the community, said council policy manager Andrew Stitt.

"There is a question about being able to maintain the level of service, versus a long-term investment for change. We are constantly making those tradeoffs," he said.

Farmers accept the science, but are not worried by the potential for more extreme drought.

"I don't hold any grave concerns about forecast weather changes because I know farmers are an adaptable, changeable bunch," said Bruce Wills, president of Federated Farmers.

The nationwide drought in 2007-2008 cost the New Zealand economy $2.8 billion. Last summer's drought, a one-in-70-year event, cost the economy $1.3b.

The reduced impact, despite the size of the most recent drought, was due to farmers being better prepared, Wills said.

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"I got through this year pretty comfortably because I turned my farming business upside down after I got caught unprepared in 2007," he said.

He built 60 new dams, swapped much of his sheep stock for drought-resistant cattle, and grew his grass longer to be more resilient in low rainfall. "Good farmers will adjust to conditions and adjust their business accordingly," he said.

STORM WREAKS HAVOC

Trees were felled, roofs torn off, and power lines went down after a storm swept through Canterbury and the lower North Island on Friday night and early yesterday morning.

Winds reached up to 135kmh in parts of Canterbury and Wellington, with wind warnings in place yesterday in the Wairarapa and a weather watch across Hawke's Bay and the Tararua Ranges for rain.

In the south, falling trees took out power lines at 2am and sparked a fire.

"We had a huge northwest gust of wind come through this morning," said Lincoln fire chief Kevin Greene yesterday.

"With that huge wind behind it, [the fire] just took off."

At one point, there were 45 firefighters, six pumps and five tankers dealing with the fires that flared along a 2km stretch. It was contained by 5.30am.

About 9800 households also lost access to power with lines down. Most were reconnected by the afternoon.

Kaikoura was blocked after a truck stopped in the middle of the road. The driver felt it was too dangerous to continue driving.

Yesterday's strong winds are set to continue through the weekend in the lower North Island, and the rain expected right through next week, said MetService forecaster Elke Louw. 

- Sunday Star Times

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