Let there be light

MATT RILKOFF
Last updated 05:00 18/01/2014
sun full
AARON WOOD

Sunshine and holidays go together for most people like bacon and eggs.

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In the minds of New Zealanders Taranaki is often a lush, green, temperate west coast province routinely buffeted by offshore winds and more often than not soaked by onshore rains.

And while that may have held true in the past, there is some evidence of a gradual shift toward a relatively warmer climate, a subtle but critical change, particularly noticeable in winter.

Last year was Taranaki's hottest and one of the driest on record, which is why it was not entirely surprising New Plymouth was scorched by the second most sunshine hours in the country.

Except, maybe it wasn't. The spike in sunshine coincided with change in the way it was measured, leading to the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research, Niwa, querying the results.

This means New Plymouth's second placing is currently not recognised as making it one of 2013's sunniest spots, even if it was.

Whakatane Mayor Tony Bonne remembers well the sting of sunshine hours being given and then taken away.

"Five years ago it happened to us. They told us our sunshine was too good to be true and they disqualified us," he says.

"They (Niwa) did a test over six months and it was proved that actually it was a little bit under-read. We shouldn't have been disqualified."

The initial conclusion was the council measurements probably over-estimated the amount of sun.

But not by terribly much. It matters to Mr Bonne that these things are done right because Whakatane prides itself on its sunny reputation.

More than that, it depends on it to keep the tourists coming.

"It does mean quite a bit to people when they are looking to go on holiday. There have also been cases of people moving here because they have Googled for sunny places in New Zealand and found us. It's a great marketing tool," he says.

Sunshine and holidays go together for most people like bacon and eggs.

Venture Taranaki's Stuart Trundle has seen the results good weather, and particularly sunshine, make in bringing people into the region.

"Last year when we had periods of 10 days of sun on the long range Metservice forecast, we would push that out through social media and local visitor industry operators could definitely see a kick from that," he says.

"Nationally, more and more accommodation providers are using those forecasts to encourage people to visit."

No one argues last summer was something special, at least for holiday makers, as the long, hot days came one after the other after the other.

That this is even possible in Taranaki is often surprising to outsiders. A 2012 Venture Taranaki survey comprised largely of people from the neighbouring provinces of Manawatu and Waikato found 38 per cent saw the weather as the most negative feature of the region.

"It wouldn't be the first place in your mind when you think of a sunny place," says Kevin Alder, a former weather observer at the New Plymouth Airport.

"People would always think Bay of Plenty, Gisborne, Nelson. You guys get more sun than Wellington but you wouldn't say New Plymouth is the sunniest place.

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Even the locals wouldn't think that. The perception of New Plymouth, and Taranaki, is a place of mild climates, warm water, not subject to extremes. Wet but not too wet."

Mr Alder was in New Plymouth when the sunshine recordings were done manually by a person measuring the burn marks on a piece of card inserted and removed each day from a Campbell-Stokes recorder.

He says Niwa is right to question the 2013 results, especially as they coincided with the change in measuring device and were so much higher than the hours measured at nearby weather stations in Stratford and Taumarunui.

But well-known Oakura gardner Glyn Church knows from practical experience that Taranaki's climate is changing. Plants that used to grow with ease three decades ago now struggle to survive without help.

"Thirty years ago rhododendrons were easy to grow on the coast. Now they are not. They are just not used to the warmer weather we are getting and of course that brings different bugs and diseases," he says.

Weed species formerly restricted to the north are also creeping south as the temperatures get warmer and plants that require cold winters aren't performing as well, he says.

"I think it's quite conceivable that we had record sunshine last year. I don't see why not.

"I always say it's a fantastic climate here because it's either raining or its sunny. It's very rarely anything in between."

And last year, he says, there was a third less rain than usual. A difference he describes as dramatic.

"So if there was less rain, [therefore], there was more sunshine."

As good as 2013 was, New Plymouth surf shop owner and habitual weather watcher Wayne Arthur is sceptical that his city could ever be one of the country's sunniest places.

Among other things, a few cloud free days often tended to give rise to a collective amnesia that erased the rain-soaked days that preceded it, he says.

"But of all the places I have been to in the world, and I have been to quite a few, I haven't looked at the sunshine hours before I went there," he says.

However, there is one climatic condition that people did look at when choosing New Plymouth as a place to visit and even to live.

"Offshore westerly winds," he says.

"You ask any kite surfer why this place is a type of heaven and that's what they'll say."

- Taranaki Daily News

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