Tuesday, January 6, 2009

2008 rains ease pain for drought-stricken Australia

By Nic MacBean

ABC News Online, Posted Tue Jan 6, 2009 5:48pm AEDT


Good rains gave large parts of Australia some much-needed rain in 2008, easing the severe drought conditions that have made life tough for the past decade.

The Bureau of Meteorology today released its drought statement for the past year, and it showed the La Nina weather pattern delivered above-average rainfall to many drought-stricken communities in eastern Australia.

But the Bureau warned that Australia is still in the grip of some of the worst drought conditions since records began, thanks to the effects of climate change.

"The combination of record heat and widespread drought during the past five to 10 years over large parts of southern and eastern Australia is without historical precedent and is, at least partly, a result of climate change," the report said.

Severe drought conditions have forced many people to leave their properties in the last decade, and the Federal Government has handed out $2.2 billion in drought assistance from 2002 to 2007.

Severe water restrictions have also hit many Australian cities, and south-east Queensland residents face the introduction of recycled waste water into drinking supplies if combined dam levels fall below 40 per cent.

But National Climate Centre climatologist Lynette Bettio says above-average rainfall lifted many areas out of drought in 2008.

"In southern parts of South Australia, much of Victoria, and parts of Tasmania and New South Wales there were those short-term deficiencies existing," she said.

"But with that above-average rainfall that we've seen in October and November in those areas, it's really helped to ease those short-term deficiencies."

The southern parts of the Northern Territory also experienced some relief. Severe rainfall shortages that had existed there disappeared over the last year.

But Ms Bettio said there were still large parts of the nation struggling with some of the lowest rainfall totals since records began in 1900.

"There's a large patch in western Queensland that's showing up as being deficient and also in the area around Melbourne and a little bit in the area around Hobart," she said.

The La Nina/El Nino weather patterns exert a significant influence over Australia's rainfall, and the wet conditions at the start of last year were thanks to the La Nina effect, which refers to the "extensive cooling of the central and eastern Pacific Ocean".

The Bureau will not make predictions about how much rain can be expected for the year ahead, but it does have an idea of what is coming in the next three months.

"Parts of northern New South Wales and south-eastern Queensland are forecast in January to March to be wetter than average," Ms Bettio said.

"That south-west corner of WA and parts of Queensland are forecast to be drier than average over the coming three months."

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