Drought of commonsense
FRIDAY MARCH 15, 2013
(pic: Christine Cornege, for NZ Herald)
The country has indeed been under the strain of a seriously dry situation, especially the far north where it has hit the hardest and especially in the past 30 days , and our sympathies must go out to all farmers and their families who have been trying to cope. But it is less than a month since the word 'drought' has been applied, having been declared for Northland only 3 weeks ago.
Admittedly rain has been very scarce all summer but that is not unusual for NZ, with February typically hot and dry. Tucking into brown grass already turned to standing hay is of temporary relief for some animals but it is unsustainable. Once gone there is no regeneration without water in the soil. Will the water come? How dire is the real situation?
Well, why have we forgotten that rains usually arrive in March anyway?
I have been taken to task for not saying 'drought' in my almanac. But I did say it. On p62 of the 2013 almanac it says in the opening paragraph "there may be talk of drought". For the 16th it says "Northland may be bracing itself for drought". For the 19th:"Drought covering much of the North Island". In last year's almanac for December we spoke of (p21) a "very dry and sunny month with heatwaves to come, and p475 "extremely high temperatures", and in website articles here "scorchingly summer and firebans", and readers can read between the lines. The almanacs are written 2 years beforehand. How else could we have warned farmers?
On the other hand the taxpayer funded NIWA did not say drought in their outlooks from December to April, and they predicted normal rain and temperatures for the entire season. Forecasters usually don't use the drought word because it is so subjective and in the eye of the beholder. Kiwifruit, grape and citrus farmers love hot dry weather. But the farm next door may be dairy and suffering badly.
Drought is more a media word than a farming one. In the north without doubt the situation has been critical.
As usual the alarmist media have been concentrating on the worst scenes which is their job. But it does not mean the alarmism over the whole country is all justified - it just means in many cases they wish to use the drought word to sell more newspapers.
Actually some areas have had small amounts of rain in last 4 weeks, like Whitianga, Gisborne, and Kaikoura who have each received about 20mm, and Invercagill has had over 30mls. Of course this has been only a drop in the bucket. But media and science make more money from exaggeration, and tend to leave out bits of information that lessen a case. This is not to belittle the major problems some are indeed facing, but let's get an overall perspective away from the hype.
A poll run here
Are drought conditions hitting you hard? The results have been, to date:
• Yes, things are desperate (1325) 23%
• Yes, but it's not that bad (1952) 34%
• Not at all (2423) 41%
• I don't know (92) 2%
It suggests that a good proportion of us are yet to feel they have been affected at all. Nevertheless 57% have said yes they do feel affected so that itself is significant. Such polls are useful tools to feed the propganda machine because if favourable to the cause it helps scientists haul out the global warming wagon which in the long run generates research funding from governments wanting an excuse to impose more and higher eco-taxes.
Usually 7 weeks of no rain at all is called a drought. We have not yet had that everywhere. The word drought really reflects the effects on the economy . On the other hand farming is the backbone of the economy and farmers need all the asistance they can get, and when they suffer at the hands of weather the taxpayer must step in. There is nothing to stop those who feel that such subsidiisation is unfair from going farming themselves. And declaration of drought does ease early drought relief funding, so on the finacial level I am supportive of that.
Mindful of so many pollsters in the above poll saying they are not affected at all, it is still scientifically odd why last week an ex-NIWA Head Scientist would burst into the national headlines with his view that this was now the worst drought since the war. Then he changed his next announcement to the worst drought 'in 70 years'. This was later cut back to 50 years.
To gain wider attention it seems that the story needed more spice. Within only a couple of days another earth scientist was proclaiming it the worst drought in the North Island of NZ in all of its history.
So this same drought's comparative status had suddenly, within 2 days, stretched itself by several thousand years. This was leapt upon by every newspaper headline as evidence that at last global warming was visible and real and the planet, or at least our part of it, was indeed barbecuing itself to a quick crispy blackening end. Of course all this had nothing to do with the fact it is summer time.
As usual, it was all us naughty humans' fault, and the greens had long been waggling fingers at us that this would happen because not enough people have been riding bikes to work, planting trees, and turning off lights, and now it would only get worse. Every unusual cloud is to the climate alarmists a chemtrail, every ground tremor is a brewing tsunami, and every next warmish afternoon is going to break heat records. One scientist on TV1 News explained that camels would soon be commonplace in NZ. Just look around you, he repeated, at the "the worst drought in our history".
Well I looked around me. I looked iat our history. Which history? The Pakeha history goes back 244 years, so there must be scientists who remember waving to Captain Cook as he floated by under full sail, who have been not only counting but also quantifying all droughts since then (about 50) to be able to say with confidence and precision, precision being what science is for, yep, this drought is definitely the meanest and the worst. Alternatively if you are of Maori descent your timeline of history for the North Island would be going back to Kupe.
The problem is that alarmism based on silly nonsense science turns the public off, and the battle for hearts and minds gets lost. In the end the farming community suffers, as they have done with the farting and belching tax proposals. Sooner or later farmers are held to blame for the weather patterns and more taxes are imposed which make farming less profitable. It is one thing to claim financial relief for drought conditions, but that is just considered temporary and to get farmers out of a fiscal hole - it should go no further than that.
Personally I do not find evidence anywhere that the climate is changing. We have these droughts about every 4-5 years. The last one was in 2007-2008 and it cost the country $3billion in lost income and damages, and it kicked off our recession. Prior to that there was a very severe nation-wide drought from 2000-2001 that crippled Marlborough but extended to Southland and over much of the North island. Before that, there was the one scientists called the 1997-98 El Nino drought that set us back by half a billion dollars.
Then we can go back a further 5 years to the 1992 serious 'power shortage' drought when the southern hydrolakes completely dried up. Electricity prices soared and the country was told it was the shape of dry conditions for the next century. But the lakes have never been that low since, and we found out later that the energy company had made a dry season worse by letting water out all autumn, to keep lake levels low, so that they would eventually be obliged to kickstart their gas and oil generators which charged out power at higher rates.
Prior to that was the 1987-88 Canterbury drought which cost the country $360 million. Then some may recall the 1982 drought in the Waimea, arguably worse than the drought spanning 2000-01, and some may still remember the next-back severe drought of 1976. Then we can go another 4 years back to the 1972 drought in Marlborough and of course it doesn't end there. In the 41 years since 1972 we have suffered 9 or 10 droughts, an average of a crippling dry event once every 4-5 years.
To be fair not all droughts are created equal or cover the whole country during their time, but if severity is measured by what they cost, then a short drought in Marlborough could be worse than a long drought in Southland because of crop income. The exercise of comparing droughts is about as useful as comparing tastes. People all have their own outlooks based on how they themselves are affected. For this one the final bill is not in but probably won't exceed 2 billion dollars, compared with the 3 billion dollars that the last drought cost us.
I believe this event is now itself almost history, as heavy rains are arriving within three days. More rain is expected next weekend and the following Easter weekend, which should also bring unsettled conditions. By the end of March the drought could be in tatters, and a fortnight of torrential North Island rains starting in the second week of April may cause this ultra-dry season to be quite quickly forgotten. A warm and wet autumn is followed by a wet June and July for both islands..
And so it must be sheer coincidence that every 4-5 years there's a switch in what the moon does, and every 9-11 years a repeat of what the sun does. With the moon this is called the 'Declination' cycle, which scientists who don't like saying 'moon' call the 'Southern Oscillation Index', and which those who are afraid of even looking for cycles call El Nino and La Nina, which, they confidently declare occurs at random. The sun's part is called the Sunspot cycle. Random occurs outside of science - there is no mathematical Law that defines it. Assigning something to random is avoiding the more honest admission they do not understand the process.
The way these solar and lunar cycles interweave is why we get droughts every decade and every half decade in NZ. The pattern shows this to be a fact. We could better manage droughts by preparing for the next one about three years after the last one. It means arranging for irrigation systems and dry feed in storage well ahead of time, the planned increase and reduction of stock to suit the pattern, and rotation of cropping pastures with those paddocks better suited to drier conditions to fit the drought sequence. The culture of the refusal within the scientific community to consider cycles also needs to change.
2-3 years to think about it, before we engage with the next drought about 2017.