El Nino brings dry grip to south eastern Australia and farmers feel the pinch

Australian Broadcasting Corporation

Broadcast: 23/10/2015

Reporter: Tracy Bowden

Much of southern Australia is bracing for the hottest October on record and one of the biggest El Nino weather patterns on record, and farmers are already feeling the impact.

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SABRA LANE, PRESENTER: Thunderstorms and heavy rain have lashed the east coast in recent days but there has still been no substantial rain in the driest parts of the country. In Victoria, some producers are dealing with the second year in a row of failed grain crops. The Farmers Federation says in some areas it is as bad as the millennium drought. It is shaping up to be the hottest October on record for south-eastern Australia with some regions recording well below-average rainfall. Those conditions are directly related to the powerful El Nino weather pattern in the Pacific Ocean. Tracy Bowden reports.

TRACY BOWDEN, REPORTER: This is El Nino in action, making a bad situation worse.

CAM BARBER, FARMER: This year it has cause a very dry spring with as well as a hot patch. That’s common for an El Nino event. The crop basically died, and we are salvaging what did grow for hay.

ANDREW WATKINS, CLIMATE PREDICTION SERVICES, BUREAU OF METEROLOGY: This El Nino is looking like it will probably be one of the strongest we’ve ever recorded. Indeed, at the moment it is looking like it’s probably only second to 1997/98, but comparable to something like 1982/83.

TRACY BOWDEN: In February 1983, the nation was in drought. A huge dust storm swept across Melbourne. Then the Ash Wednesday bushfires raged through south-eastern Australia, claiming 75 lives. Now what NASA scientists are calling the Godzilla of El Niño’s is in the Pacific Ocean with temperatures 2 degrees above normal.

JACLYN BROWN, OCEAN RESEARCH SCIENTIST, CSIRO: Australia’s climate is actually controlled by the oceans there is a pool of warm water that sits in the western part of the Pacific Ocean and where you have warm water, you have convection and therefore rainfall. During an El Nino, that warm water moves to the east and takes the rainfall with it. Leaving us with dry, hot conditions.

CSIRO SCIENTIST: Farmers have told me that they’ve had three days above 34 degrees in north-west Victoria and that’s a record.

TRACY BOWDEN: Scientists at the CSIRO are monitoring conditions in the ocean and the atmosphere. They expect the El Nino to peak next month.

JACLYN BROWN: We know that they bring dry, warm conditions, so he we are expecting those again this year, particularly for the eastern and southern parts of Australia, possibly more heatwaves, less rainfall, more bushfire risk.

TRACY BOWDEN: More than 80 per cent of Queensland is already drought-declared. The weather pattern fuelled by the El Nino are adding to the pain.

ROGER LANDSBERG, GRAZIER: It has been a long year in terms of just having no rainfall.

TRACY BOWDEN: Roger Landsberg is a third generation grazier at Charters Towers in northern Queensland. He has vivid memories of the El Nino in the early ’80s.

ROGER LANDSBERG: I remember ’82 very well because it was a very dry year, my father sold all our breeders. We had storms every afternoon in November/December but there was no rain in them. It did not rain until Anzac Day ’83, so that’s very foremost in my mind.

TRACY BOWDEN: Modern weather forecasting at least allows producers to plan ahead.

ROGER LANDSBERG: If you know it’s going to be dry ahead of time, you start lightening off numbers and making some plans as to moving stock to other areas or generally getting cattle off the property anyway.

ANDREW WATKINS: So at the moment the Indian Ocean is reinforcing the El Nino and tending to dry things even more for eastern Australia and southern Australia as well.

TRACY BOWDEN: Rapidly changing conditions have played havoc with the bureau’s forecasts. The three-month outlook had to be dramatically revised just two weeks after it was issued, showing a swathe of southern Australia with expectations of above-average temperatures.

ANDREW WATKINS: El Niño’s typically bring a lot warmer springs and early summers, so we expect to see more days over 30 degrees and particularly a little bit earlier as well, for most of the capital cities and indeed inland areas.

TRACY BOWDEN: Australia’s wheat belt is also feeling the heat. Fourth generation farmer Cam Barber’s property is in Victoria’s Mallee region.

CAM BARBER: A lot of western Victoria had a massive shortage of rain, and also we had a big heatwave about two weeks ago which really finished the crops off.

TRACY BOWDEN: Cam Barber is doing what he can do lessen the blow.

CAM BARBER: The income we will get from hay will only be about a quarter of our expected income if we had taken it through to grain if it had have rained.

TRACY BOWDEN: Locals are worried that another year of bad crops will threaten the survival of small towns like Birchip.

MICK FOOTT, FARMER: Usually after an El Nino, there is a La Nina, a wet year and that’s what we’re hoping for, because if that doesn’t come, we are in shit street.

ANDREW WATKINS: We’ve seen a very dry September, a dry October at the moment. Unfortunately that’s coming on the end of the cropping season. A lot of people need just one more good rainfall to get a decent crop off, so they are watching the heavens at the moment, but unfortunately it has been quite dry, so people are having to manage that risk of a poor end to the cropping season.

JEREMY FERNANDEZ , REPORTER: It has been another testing day for fire fighters in Victoria as bushfires continue to destroy homes.

TRACY BOWDEN: The bushfire season is already under way with Victoria declaring its earliest ever total fire ban two weeks ago. Brigades across the south-east are preparing for the warmer, drier conditions.

ROB ROGERS, DEPUTY COMMISSIONER, NSW RURAL FIRE SERVICE: Any summer can be problematic, but what you are doing by adding the El Nino in is you’re saying, “Look, if you are going to get bad fires, that could be just that bit worse,” so it could add a new dimension to how difficult the fires are suppressed, how many new fires we get and how quickly they burn.

TRACY BOWDEN: Even without the influence of El Nino climate projections point to more extreme heat in Australia in the future and more bush fires. An increase in super El Niño’s is also forecast as the global climate warms. So is this the new normal? It is a question scientists approach with caution.

ANDREW WATKINS: We’ve warmed by about a degree over the past century. That always tips the odds slightly in favour of more extreme weather in the future.

TRACY BOWDEN: Farmers are typically preparing for the worst, but hoping for the best.

CAM BARBER: We are doing the best out of this year we can and thinking about next year, otherwise you drag yourself down.

SABRA LANE: Tracy Bowden reports.

Categories: Drought

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