Dave Hansford

Otherwise fine

Extreme weather takes its toll on rural communities, which feel the wrath of seasonal variances and the deep undercurrent of climate change too.

Written by       Photographed by Dave Hansford

In 2008, right around Christmas, the easterly trade winds suddenly fell still. The cold water they’d been pumping up from the eastern Pacific seabed sank again, and the warm surface water they’d pushed up against East Asia was free to start drifting back across the Pacific. Kelvin waves of warm water—just a few centimetres high, but hundreds of kilometres wide—rippled back east along the equator to pool off South America, where a spike in the mercury announced that “The Boy”—El Niño—was back.

For a few months, The Boy seemed to suffer gender confusion, flipping from El Niño to its feminine alter-ego, La Niña, and back again. But by September 2009, air pressure in the western Pacific began to thicken. The ocean began to warm. Massive, glaring highs began to form.

They say that when a butterfly flaps its wings in the Brazilian jungle, it might trigger a tornado in Texas. It’s called the Butterfly Effect, and the premise is that the insect’s wings cause the first, tiny disturbance that can ripple, energetic and exponential, outwards to climax in catastrophe. In the language of chaos theory, tiny perturbations in the early life of a dynamic system, like weather, can have far-reaching and quite unexpected effects.

Certainly, come that austral spring, when The Boy began to writhe and flex off the coast of Chile, odd things started to happen 9700 km away in Herekino.

Mattie and Georgina Covich milk 180 Friesians on what used to be the bottom of the ocean, a half-hour north of Kaitaia on the Aupouri Peninsula. Spring and early summer are wet times here—locals will tell you the campers always get flooded out at Christmas.

But last summer they didn’t. In fact, nobody had so much as turned their windscreen wipers on since mid-September. By January, the Covich farm had been baking in 287 hours of continuous sunshine—the most since records began.

Julianne Bainbridge and husband Aaron spent $130,000 on supplementary feed “just to keep things ticking over”. If they don’t keep weight on their cows, she says, the consequences—low calving rates and animal health issues—prove still more costly.
Julianne Bainbridge and husband Aaron spent $130,000 on supplementary feed “just to keep things ticking over”. If they don’t keep weight on their cows, she says, the consequences—low calving rates and animal health issues—prove still more costly.

In Wellington, Andrew Tait watched The Boy settle in on his computer screen, dominating graphs in deep red bars. “By February 2010, this El Niño was at its peak,” says the NIWA climate scientist. “We had persistent anti-cyclones, stronger southwest winds than normal, higher-than-normal pressures, very sunny skies, and very little rain.”

Not that Northland needed telling. It wilted in a summer that came on harder, hotter, drier—longer—than records recall. Life should have been rampant, verdant. Instead, it browned, curled and withered. Mattie Covich made an agonising decision. “We dried the cows off, and sent them down to Helensville, where hopefully they’d have some tucker.” The pair choked back tears as the truck rattled off down the dusty road.

Meanwhile, the Awanui River was dying. Kaitaia takes its drinking water from the Awanui right next to the town’s community centre, pumps it around the ratepayers—who fill it with 1500 cubic metres of sewage a day—before treating it and putting it back in the river just north of the town limits.

Under the terms of its consent, the Far North District Council (FNDC) is meant to leave enough flow (460 litres a second) in the Awanui to maintain what freshwater ecologists call “instream values”—habitat, food and chemical balance for wildlife. But in January, the council’s reservoir, the Kauri Dam, turned into a simmering saucepan of algal bloom, and the Northland Regional Council gave the OK for the FNDC to suck more from the Awanui, even though, at that stage, Kaitaians had mostly ignored appeals to save water.

By summer’s end, the council’s water operations manager, Jim Brooks, was eyeing the Awanui dubiously. It’s incredible to think that the stream was all that stood between Kaitaia and Brooks’ “doomsday scenario”—trucking water in from down the line (if anyone had any to spare, and the tankers had the time to fetch it). You could have jumped across the Awanui at its lowest, and the Hokianga towns of Opononi and Omapere were relying on still less. Omapere’s stream was flowing at barely nine litres a second.

To add to the woes, the sewage-treatment ponds had succumbed to the same blue-green algae infesting the Kauri Dam, and Brooks could no longer discharge the town’s effluent back into the Awanui without killing the river altogether. So he leased 16 ha of Landcorp pasture next door to the treatment plant and pumped the sewage into newly cut drains instead.

Down in Helensville, The Boy struck Mattie Covich another cruel blow. The drought had followed his cows south. The grazing he’d paid for was just as dry as his own farm. He planted a crop of maize to feed them when they came home, and it was his smartest move in a lifetime of farming. If he and Georgina were upset at their cows’ leaving, they were devastated upon their return. The stock were in sorrier shape than when they had left. Worse, they were heavily pregnant. “Cows should calve at a condition score of five,” said Georgina. “These would have been lucky to make three and a half.”

Mattie stared out the window at the blazing sky. “This is the worst drought I’ve ever seen.” Some mornings, he didn’t want to go outside, didn’t want to have to face The Boy.

“This feels like a slow death. You hope and hope, then it gets to the stage where you give up hoping.”

“The worst thing is sitting down to a feed here in the evening, knowing your cows are going hungry.”

Back in Wellington, Andrew Tait watched the Covich farm burn. On his computer screen, he’d plotted months of soil moisture deficit data as colours across a map of New Zealand. December 2009 in Northland began as splotches of yellow; the soil already held less than half the water it should have had.

By January, Northland blazed red, NIWA’s driest scale. Many Northland farms were now dust down to 130mm. As the drought bit down, the desiccation spread like blood from an open wound, red across Tait’s map, south into Auckland, the King Country, across the Bay of Plenty, into Hawkes Bay. South Taranaki’s green faded to yellow, then Wanganui, then the Wairarapa. By March that year, only north Taranaki still had average soil moisture levels.

In the South Island, Otago fared still worse—farmers there went into last year’s summer with soils already at critical deficits. By March, much of Canterbury, Marlborough and Golden Bay were dry. Even Southland was showing up yellow. New Zealand was withering.

Tait has a chart for every nuance. He called up one that plots the chance of rainfall—based on historical records—during an El Niño summer. Even in March, Northland should have an even chance of rain, but it didn’t come. “In the past, El Niño hasn’t been at all dry in Northland,” he told me. “That’s why this one’s caught them unprepared. It’s worse than what we’ve seen in the past.”

Every month, NIWA summarises the previous four weeks of weather, and a simple glance at the summaries tells you 2010 was one for the record books. “A record dry February in Auckland… A record dry March for Auckland… Much warmer than average March for Nelson, Otago, South Canterbury, and the Lakes District… Extremely sunny… Record low rainfall in Northland, parts of Auckland, Coromandel, Bay of Plenty, Taupo, Canterbury, Otago and inland Southland.”

Last summer’s temperatures were between 0.5°C and 1.2°C above average for Northland, Auckland, Coromandel and the Bay of Plenty, as well as inland and western areas of the South Island.

Far North dairy farmers Mattie and Georgina Covich lost tens of thousands in earnings when they dried their cows off three months early. They sent the herd instead to Helensville to find fodder, but the drought struck there too and the herd returned in worse shape than when it left.
Far North dairy farmers Mattie and Georgina Covich lost tens of thousands in earnings when they dried their cows off three months early. They sent the herd instead to Helensville to find fodder, but the drought struck there too and the herd returned in worse shape than when it left.

Kaitaia recorded its driest summer ever. Summer sunshine totals were more than 125 per cent of normal at either end of the country, with Kaitaia and Balclutha both blistering in their sunniest summer ever.

All classic, if acute, El Niño stuff, says Tait. But he’s peering through the extremes—what he calls “the normal, chaotic nature of weather”—trying to tease apart The Boy’s thrashings from a more consistent and persistent line in the data, one that’s influenced by every one of us.

NIWA has considered a range of climate-change scenarios for the coming century, depending on whether we cut our greenhouse emissions, maintain them, or increase them. “To get a more average picture,” says Tait, “we combine all of those models.”

Once crunched, the numbers tell us that eastern New Zealand will get warmer and drier, as the west gets wetter. What rain will fall, NIWA says, will come in fewer, but heavier, deluges (warmer air holds more moisture). In short, nature is going to deliver the weather punctuated with exclamation marks—an increasingly polarised package of extremes.

Tait says it’s too early to say with surety that’s happening—New Zealand’s infamously fickle rainfall patterns make his job especially difficult—“but what we’re seeing so far is consistent with our predictions”.

One of those predictions is for Northland to get drier—between five and 7.5 per cent less rain by 2090—and the records are starting to fit neatly over Tait’s graph.

Gerry Webb could have told him as much. He and his partner Lois came here to Honeymoon Valley, a hippie enclave in the bush behind Taipa, in the 1970s. They lived in a hay rick while they built their hewn macrocarpa homestead, planted firewood and timber lots, got an orchard started and a veggie garden. It was tough, but at least they could count on water; the Peria Stream rounds an oxbow, limpid and laughing, next to their house before careening off in search of the sea.

Webb wrote a poem about it:

“A moving miracle
this current
of sparkling molecules

this boulder-rumpled
kaleidoscope of variations

forever in motion
yet holding a pattern

this endless loop
of the water cycle


water through bedrock forced
springs and rivers sourced.”

By summer’s end, however, even the Peria was running low. “I’ve always needed gumboots to cross here,” said Webb. It was barely over my sandals, but at least it was still flowing; a spring on his river flats ran hard and fast for 33 years, until February. “We’ve had dry years, but nothing like this…things feel like they’re out of kilter.” Last summer, the rata didn’t flower, said Webb. The birds went hungry. One afternoon, a flock of mynahs stormed his orchard and devoured his entire apple crop. His beehives failed (as they did all over Northland). The taraire trees were browning; the drought was killing the mycorrhizal fungi around their roots that help them to absorb nutrients.

[Chapter Break]

Gerry and Lois “dropped out” of urbanite Auckland and came here “because we were concerned about the planet. We wanted to be in control of our needs, our food. Now it seems like the world’s woes have followed us here.” Webb was reluctant to accept that climate change had come to his gate. “But the planet’s not that big, and the amount of carbon we’re pumping into the air? It seems very likely to me…”

By high summer, the butterfly effect was reverberating even through the deep, shady forests. Lesley Baigent is a vet; she knows a sick bird when she sees one. She held a fragile kiwi chick in her hands, and explained that it should be nudging a kilo in weight. It should be round and full with worms and beetles and slaters.

Instead, it has struggled against the odds to make it to 650 grams, and only then because it was lucky enough to find itself in the care of the BNZ Save the Kiwi Trust.

One man’s roadside waste is another man’s stock fodder. His stocks of hay and silage gone, Whangaroa farmer Ricky Timms (top) gathers up grass clippings left by council mowers to feed his cows. Kiwi sniffer dog Tohu (bottom) finds another victim of the drought. The ground baked so hard that kiwi chicks like this one, at Herekino, south of Kaitaia, couldn’t push their bills into the ground to feed.
One man’s roadside waste is another man’s stock fodder. His stocks of hay and silage gone, Whangaroa farmer Ricky Timms (top) gathers up grass clippings left by council mowers to feed his cows. Kiwi sniffer dog Tohu (bottom) finds another victim of the drought. The ground baked so hard that kiwi chicks like this one, at Herekino, south of Kaitaia, couldn’t push their bills into the ground to feed.


By the time this kiwi chick hatched, soil moisture had evaporated to yet another record, and while kiwi hatchlings can normally feed themselves from the get-go, this one—and dozens like him—simply couldn’t push his bill into the baked ground.

“Their beaks are quite delicate at that age anyway,” said Baigent, “and this fellah was so light he couldn’t get any force behind it.” Like maybe hundreds of other kiwi chicks around the North, he ended up wandering, starving, in broad daylight and open country. Many were drawn to houses, often by well-meaning people offering food, only to be killed by another bane—dogs. On their daily training routines, Baigent and her kiwi-sniffing short-haired pointer, Tohu, found 12 dead adults, all killed, she suspects, by the same dog.

The trust’s national mentor for advocacy, Wendy Sporle, has been working to protect kiwi for 20 years, and she’s not witnessed anything quite like the carnage of last summer. “I never get used to kiwi deaths. It still hurts.”

She worries that, if these searing summers are going to become regular, Northland’s forests won’t be able to support as many kiwi as they do now. “They’ll need bigger ranges, and that will bring them close to houses and pets—and danger.”

[Chapter Break]

Other creatures suffered too. Northland’s native kauri and flax snails need a cool, moist environment to avoid dehydrating, but over summer, their haunts became a furnace.

On Motuapo Island, in the Bay of Islands, our most critically endangered flax snails were found baked in their own shells—the skeletons of a species.

The threatened Northland mudfish was in the same predicament, said DOC ranger Janine Collings. Mudfish can do without water if necessary, as long as they can find moist sediment to lie in, dormant but not hibernating, until the rains return. But last season, their muddy retreat became a tomb, said Collings. “Because the fish were still metabolising, they basically lay there until they died from loss of condition.”

Those that survived found their former homes invaded by gambusia, or mosquito fish, an unwanted pest brought here from Central America. It thrived in the warm, still, shallow waters of the drought, says Collings, at the expense of our native species, which it attacks and kills.

Many of Northland’s pest plants are sub-tropical, and an invading thicket of them were quick to out-compete native plants wilting in the heat. Last summer’s drought had a standard-bearer—everywhere, gaunt, dead poles of mamaku, the black tree fern, stand against the glare of the sky. “Things are moving in a different equilibrium,” said Collings. “These conditions favour weedy species.” As wetlands dried out, Sydney golden wattle almost chased the receding waters, quickly colonising and altering the habitat.

The situation wasn’t helped by farmers, desperate to feed and water their stock, who succumbed to the temptation to let their cattle into wetland reserves. Feed became gold. Most farmers had already exhausted the stocks of hay and silage they were supposed to keep for winter. In an ironic twist, many were feeding their cows on palm kernel (a byproduct of palm oil production) imported from Indonesia. If they joined any dots between tropical deforestation, climate change and the drought, they were not about to admit it.

By the end of summer, anything but withered stubble was on the menu—at Puhoi, they were feeding cows on whey from a local cheese factory. At Whangaroa, Ricky Timms gathered up grass clippings, left by council mowers on the roadside, to feed his cows.

“They come past every six weeks,” he said. “When they saw what I was doing, they gave this stretch a second pass, just to leave me more feed.”

The maize Mattie Covich grew kept his cows going, but he and Georgina still needed rain—lots of it, and real soon. Like thousands of farmers around the country, they were pitched by the drought into a race against time; it had to rain while temperatures were still warm enough for grass to grow.

Their decision to send the cows away was a brave one; drying them off in February meant Mattie and Georgina produced 20,000 fewer kilograms of milksolids last season. Ironically, Fonterra announced in late April that it would increase its payout to $6.10 a kilogram, and pay out the bonus immediately—a windfall just like the thunderstorm the previous week that blew right past their farm.


They were not alone. Dairy New Zealand reckoned the drought slashed Northland milksolid production by 90 million kilograms. That’s a $140m hit to the dairy sector, but it didn’t stop there. Sheep and beef farmers fared no better; each is down, on average, $52,000 on last year. According to Tony Collins, chief executive of the Northland Chamber of Commerce, the butterfly effect will echo well into 2011. “This has already had a shocking impact on the rural community,” he says, “but lack of pasture cover, lower stocking levels, lighter calves and lower calving rates will translate into a 20 per cent hit again next year.”

Then there’s the multiplier; according to Infometrics, every dollar produced on the farm typically generates $1.68 beyond it when farmers buy supplies, hire contractors or replace machinery. Add it all up, as Jo Douglas has done, and the loss to Northland’s economy—as of May 2010 when the drought began to break—stood at $330m. “Farmers have put their cheque books away,” she says.

Douglas, head of the Enterprise Northland business lobby, says job losses are already happening, although it’s difficult to see the wood of the drought for the trees of the recession. In December 2009, 7.3 per cent of Northlanders were out of work, the most since September 1999. The end of seasonal work saw that figure climb higher still.

Figures like that paint a picture of universal disaster, but chaos theory finds fertile ground here; some valleys had 30 or 40 millimetres of rain, while the next ridge over went dry. While Wendy Sporle’s kiwi in the Herekino Forest suffered, others inland of Whangarei had a bumper season, courtesy of a plague of crickets. Dennis Sparksman’s stock trucks at Mangonui Haulage didn’t rolled in weeks, but his log jinkers were flat out; the dry conditions have helped forestry companies harvest in record levels to meet surging demand and strong prices from China.

The moteliers were happy too—holidaymakers revelled in the warmest, driest, calmest weather in years and builders’ phones were ringing off the hook with calls from homeowners—the ground in Northland became so dry that earth movement cracked walls and displaced foundations.

All of which reinforces a view you’ll hear again and again, on the farm, on the street: this is all just part of a cycle, it all evens out in the end. Northlanders—New Zealanders—can remember plenty of droughts, plenty of floods. It’s always been the same.

Except that it hasn’t. Andrew Tait has called up climate records for Northland going back to 1894. Yes, there have been some big rains and some dry seasons since then, but look intently at the graph, as you would at one of those 3D images, and there’s something there: a line that shows temperatures inexorably rising. That line is not, said Tait, “inconsistent with where we see the long-term trend heading”.

Nowhere has that nascent trend been more evident than in Hawkes Bay, which endured three droughts in a row—2007, 2008, 2009—and found itself on drought watch again in 2010.

“They weren’t media-friendly droughts,” says sheep and beef farmer Steve Wynn-Harris, “they were green droughts.” By which he means there were no dustbowls, no skeletal stock. They were something much more cruel.

For three years, there was just enough rain—5 mm here, 10 mm in the next valley over—to keep farmers’ hopes up. Keep them hanging in there. Keep them ramping up the overdraft. But every day, the margins, the odds, got slimmer.

Each summer for three years, Wynn-Harris bought in stock, then waited for the grass to grow so he could fatten them up for sale in the spring. But each autumn, he had to let them go again. He learned not to get caught with animals he couldn’t feed.

Dry summers are nothing new in Waipukurau, but it used to be that by March, nor-easters would drive heavy, black rain clouds onto these hills. For some reason, that stopped happening. Farmers planted summer crops that never struck.

If it were just an ordinary Hawkes Bay dry, they could have ridden it out like their fathers had. But three droughts in a row drove some families onto the ropes.

In late April 2009, the local drought committee declared it official, opening the way for Government assistance such as emergency welfare and tax relief. David Scott’s phone started ringing almost immediately.

As the local Rural Support Trust co-ordinator, Scott’s job was to make sure struggling families got help. He knew them well, “because the 2009 drought affected all the same valleys as it did in 2007 and 2008. Some of the farming families I worked with before were straight back on the phone.”

But others, too proud to ask for what they regard as charity, hunkered down. “They just ate mutton off the farm, and whatever they could get out of the veggie garden.” If rural people are proud, they’re also compassionate—Scott says bags of groceries turned up anonymously in letterboxes. “People care about each other in this district.”

But many, already stretched to the limit by the previous two droughts, were trapped in a vortex of diminishing returns. Whatever equity they’d managed to build up on their properties remained their only asset, and every week without rain saw it eaten away.

“Some had nothing—the dogs were the only animals on the farm,” says Scott. In the real estate windows of Gisborne, mortgagee sales started to appear.

Before the weather turned, east coast sheep and beef brought nearly $1.7 billion a year into the local economy. But farmers stopped hiring and cut back on fertiliser and farm supplies, and stock flows to meatworks slowed until, in August 2009, Progressive Meats fired 80 workers. Trucking firm Farmers Transport, with no stock to cart, soon followed suit, laying off staff and retiring trucks.

“You can sense a loss of hope for the future,” Agriculture Minister David Carter told me as we walked one of the stricken farms. “Opening that bank statement can’t be easy.”

That April, Carter went on record as saying the droughts were consistent with predicted impacts of climate change. “Most of the farmers up here…recognise the weather is changing. I think that’s symptomatic of climate change, so it does mean that more frequently, farmers are going to be placed under pressure from drought.”

Far North District Council water operations manager Jim Brooks surveys Kaitaia’s water treatment plant as drinking water diminishes. With Kaitaians largely ignoring its pleas for a 20 per cent cut in use, the Council banned sprinklers and hoses.
Far North District Council water operations manager Jim Brooks surveys Kaitaia’s water treatment plant as drinking water diminishes. With Kaitaians largely ignoring its pleas for a 20 per cent cut in use, the Council banned sprinklers and hoses.

But, just as in Northland, few farmers were willing to chalk it up to climate change; most insisted that it was just another blip in a region famous for fickle weather.

Gavin Kenny manages a Sustainable Farming Fund project in the Hawkes Bay to help farmers to adapt to climate change. He says some are in denial. “Maybe it’s just too big an issue for them to get their heads around. They’re dealing with enough already—land values, poor prices. They’re on the edge, financially, and I think there are very big concerns for the future. It’s a big weight for a farmer to be carrying around.”

Whatever you call it, it was something old hands like Simon Cave, who’s lived on the family farm behind Gisborne since 1947, had never seen. “It would have to be one of the worst droughts,” he says, “in that it was back-to-back. In 2008, people were saying, ‘It’ll be okay, because you never get more than two in a row,’ but blow me down…”

The 2007 drought alone cost Hawkes Bay more than $700m (there are no figures for the three droughts combined). “People have lost confidence in the climate,” says Hastings Mayor Lawrence Yule. “They’re gradually resigning themselves to the fact that it seems like the rainfall is not as consistent as it was.”

IN 2010, the Bay narrowly avoided a fourth consecutive drought when it was hammered in late January with more than 200 mm of rain in a single dump. But it was scant salvation, says sheep and beef farmer Bruce Wills. “Now, my grass is rotting. I haven’t got the stock to eat it.” Wills once ran 10,000 stock units on this gorgeous, rumpled country just off the Napier-Taupo Highway. By the end of summer, the place looked almost deserted. “Our stock numbers are down by 25 per cent,” he tells me. “I could borrow to buy more, but four dry years in a row…you lose your nerve. We’ll never run the sheep we used to; we’ll never run the pasture down that close again.”

Wills, who is Federated Farmers’ vice-president and meat and fibre spokesman, says it’ll take him ten years to repay his debts from the dry, but he counts himself lucky. The drought hiked sheep and beef farmers’ average debt levels up 46 per cent and cut annual incomes to an average of $31,000. It’s been estimated that it’ll cost Hawkes Bay and Wairarapa farmers $190 million to re-stock their farms, even if they could support the animals. “Dozens of Hawkes Bay farmers will go out of business,” he says. “They won’t make it.”

In May 2010, his welcome well and truly outstayed, The Boy finally left. Those immense, abiding highs to the east began to fail, shrinking isobar by isobar, leaving a vacuum that Nature could not brook. Northeasterlies were finally free to blow. At last, the rains everyone had yearned for began to fall. They soothed the seared earth. Blade by blade, paddocks began to turn green again.

Northland staggered back to its feet; all across the province, people went outside, stood beneath the grey firmament and let big fat drops of rain roll from their uplifted faces.

Then they called their neighbours, and the drizzly nights thumped with drought-break parties.

The northeasterlies brought rain throughout the country. Nowhere were people more thankful than in Otago, but after a week of rain, they began to fear anew. The windshift brought more than twice the monthly average rainfall to Nelson, Marlborough, Canterbury and eastern Otago, Coromandel, Bay of Plenty, Hawkes Bay and coastal Wairarapa. Enough was more than enough; the clay-baked ground held the rain fast. It started to pool, then rise. On May 24th, a sodden, glaucous front swept down the South Island, unleashing 250 mm of rain on the Canterbury foothills and North Otago. In less than a fortnight, the region went from drought to flood.

The front grounded on the hill country, and rained on it for two days. The Taieri, the Kakanui, the Heathcote, the Avon could take no more. They ruptured, closing roads and wrecking fords. Rural water supplies failed. Timaru got a month’s rain in a single day.

By the 26th, the rain had eased, but meteorologists warned that another front, loaded this time with snow, was on its way. Merinos that had sweltered in 30ºC days now wallowed in snowdrifts.

An agile ewe avoids the crush during a muster at Grant Hickling’s Gisborne farm. Bouyant stock prices are a double-edged sword, helping farmers recover badly-needed income, but hampering the re-stocking of farms that have been all but emptied during the droughts.
An agile ewe avoids the crush during a muster at Grant Hickling’s Gisborne farm. Bouyant stock prices are a double-edged sword, helping farmers recover badly-needed income, but hampering the re-stocking of farms that have been all but emptied during the droughts.

In the North Island things were, if anything, worse. Whakatane was hammered by a “once in a generation” storm that hurled 153mm of rain into gauges that recorded a new May record as floodwaters swept through homes and businesses. At the Amber Court Motel, Ruth Couch huddled with her pets in an upstairs room as beds floated and bumped about in downstairs units. The driveway was buried in thick black mud.

More than 110 homes were left uninhabitable. Many weren’t insured.

Georgina Griffiths isn’t about to say the sky is falling. But the NIWA climate scientist has looked hard at rainfall trends over the past 60 years, and she can confirm that the west has definitely become wetter since 1950 and the east has become dryer (the north and east of the North Island have been, on average, 10 per cent drier and 5 per cent sunnier, compared to the period 1951–76). What’s more, where rainfall has increased, so has the frequency of extreme deluges. Much of that she puts down to an increase in westerly winds over the country, which themselves are a consequence of the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation (IPO), a variation in Pacific climate that alternates as warm and cool sea surface temperature shifts every 15 to 30 years. They’re also linked, she says, to the fact that we’ve had more Niños since 1977.

Warm air holds more moisture than cold, so extreme rainfall is expected to increase under climate change. Mean air temperatures have warmed by 0.12°C every decade in the New Zealand region, but Griffiths points out that only a few extreme rain events she recorded in New Zealand actually coincided with warm episodes.

She’s trying to see through the same tangled thicket of weather forces as her colleague Andrew Tait—as the IPO tugs our weather one way, El Niño and climate change tug it in another. “Extreme rainfall, just like mean rainfall, is most strongly linked to circulation here in New Zealand. Under IPO circulation changes in the next 30 or so years, we’d expect the opposite trend to that expected under global warming, so there’s food for thought.”

Up at Herekino, the Coviches certainly got more rain than they had prayed for—one and a half times the May average. By June, they had started milking again, but their cows, still in sub-par condition and now calving, weren’t producing as they should. The grass was recovering, thanks to warm days that lingered well into winter, but, says Georgina, that balmy echo carried another setback. “Unfortunately, it led to an increase in mastitis problems, as all the bacteria loved the warmth too.”

The couple found themselves in another race; they had to get their cows back into shape before they were mated again, “or they’ll struggle to get back into calf”.

[Chapter Break]

In mid-September, air pressure began to collapse across a massive front deep in the Southern Ocean. By September 16th, it was the largest storm on the planet, whipping some 4000 square kilometres of sea into a maelstrom. Winds shrieked at 130 km/h about an abyssal eye, where the barometer bottomed out at 948 hectopascals, nearly as low as category-four hurricane Igor, which raged in the Atlantic at the same time.

The polar storm lumbered to within 1000 km of the country, and a flailing band of thunderstorms began lashing western coasts. In 24 hours, MetService recorded 2000 lightning strikes, some of which ignited buildings and trees in the Hutt Valley and Wairarapa and knocked out two electrical substations. Another struck an airliner trying to land at Wellington.

In Franklin, an elderly couple cowered as their Clarks Beach home was destroyed about them. Up the coast, anemometers around Manukau Harbour recorded 155 km/h gusts as power was cut to 45,000 people across the country.

In the Bay of Plenty, avocado growers watched their nearly-ripe fruit, the basis of their livelihoods, torn from the trees. As export packing boxes lay ready in the sheds, 30 per cent of the region’s crop was destroyed.

But Southland and Otago bore the brunt of “the storm the size of Australia”. For a week, it hurled 20 cm of snow at the province, until the roofs of an Invercargill supermarket and the city’s Stadium Southland collapsed.

A gelid windchill of minus 20ºC slew millions of newborn lambs and pregnant ewes, until eventually, Agriculture Minister David Carter declared the storm a “medium-level adverse event”, opening government assistance coffers to hundreds of farmers who had lost not only their spring crop but also much of their breeding stock as well.

Rural New Zealanders have taken a punch that will ring in their ears for years, and many farmers won’t be back on their feet before Nature lands the next one.

And it may well be soon. The parade of El Ninos will come to an end in 2011 but its traditionally more benign sibling, La Nina (which is now well-established this summer) isn’t a good deal better. The NIWA Climate Centre has predicted above-average temperatures lasting well into autumn 2011.

Persistent highs ushered in by The Girl resulted in record low rainfalls in October and November and severe soil moisture deficits at a time when spring growth should be at its peak, particularly in the north. The monthly mean temperature was 2ºC higher thanaverage in the South Island and numerous extreme maximum temperature records were broken in both islands.

News of this on December 1 prompted Agriculture Minister David Carter to consider declaring a drought, again, for Waikato and Northland. “I think we are going to have potentially quite serious drought issues over the next month or two,” he said. “It is a clear demonstration of the effects of climate change.”

Northland, a region punished by a long rainless summer, was transformed into a virtual wetland by a relentlessly wet winter. After a few days of heavy rain in Mangamuka, lush paddocks started to disappear under surface water.
Northland, a region punished by a long rainless summer, was transformed into a virtual wetland by a relentlessly wet winter. After a few days of heavy rain in Mangamuka, lush paddocks started to disappear under surface water.

If climate change means this sort of weather is going to become the norm from now on—lives and livelihoods are set to change forever. Out on the land, in the thick of Nature, farmers are the first to see the changes, but as Northland’s experience shows, when the agriculture sector takes a hit, we all reel.

Phil Journeaux heads the National Adverse Events Committee, a multi-agency panel of representatives from the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, the Ministry of Social Development, Inland Revenue, Federated Farmers, Meat and Wool New Zealand, Dairy New Zealand, Rural Women and many others set up after the 2008 drought. It co-ordinates relief for stricken farming families and advocates for drought and flood planning. “We think climate change is real, and the probability of more extreme weather is now greater,” he says.

Journeaux, MAF’s North Island regions manager, says farmers are so preoccupied with coping with the immediate that they haven’t got much time—or inclination—to deal with the strategic. “It’s set to get drier in the next 50 to 80 years, which, I have to say, tends to be a hard sell to farmers. I’m confident they’ll adapt, but there’s no way they’re going to go out and change their systems tomorrow.”

As coordinator of Northland’s Rural Support Trust, Helen Moodie watched the drought mow down those farmers who were either unprepared, or undercapitalised, or simply paralysed by despair. “The mortgagee sales are starting to happen,” she tells me. “The drought highlighted the number of farms that were probably already on the brink.”

The trust employed five advisors, who went from farm to farm explaining the benefits of feed budgeting and early decision-making, counselling for depression and organising field days off the farm.  But Journeaux says this was all “ambulance at the bottom of the cliff” stuff.

“Everyone thought that once it started to rain again, we were going to be right,” says Moodie. “But we’re not going to be right; there are a number of train smashes coming. If you stopped to think about all the negatives, you wouldn’t get out of bed.

“We’re not having the conversations we need to have, but you can’t talk to people about changing their ways right now. It’s easy to be critical of farmers, but it’s not that simple. Change costs money, and right now, they haven’t got it.”

This is about nothing less than what New Zealand will become—what our lives are going to look like. We may no longer be able to farm this country the way we always have. Growing meat and wool on the ever-drier hills of the eastern coasts—established practice for a century and a half—is already a marginal proposition.

According to a Ministry for the Environment paper, Hayward kiwifruit, emblem of the Bay of Plenty, could be uneconomic there inside five decades, under mid to high warming scenarios.

Already, kiwifruit plantings in Northland have more than halved in the past decade, but avocado orchards are springing up everywhere as farmers do what they do best: adapt. In a warming world, those that can, will. But, says Moodie, “the sad fact is that it’s the small family farms in the most trouble”.

As I drive south along State Highway Two, the sun flashes gold across the dun Hawkes Bay hilltops, the afterglow of another scorcher, as it heads for another hemisphere. I play a game, counting the kilometres until I see a sheep or cow. The odometer clicks over 22.7 before I finally spy a flock of Perendales, lit up by the very beams that drove thousands of head of stock from this place. For two centuries, New Zealand was a place of sheep. Nobody can say what it will be in the next two.

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