Australia’s mother of all droughts shows no signs of abating, with forecasters predicting a less than hopeful chance of average rain moving into summer.
Earlier this month, the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) reported that Australia’s total rainfall during the 2018-19 financial year was 351.4mm, 24 per cent below average, and the driest financial year in nearly half a century.
The lack of rain contributed to an extension of severe drought conditions in many parts of eastern Australia, with Northern Territory experiencing its driest financial year since 1964.
State of the states
September 2018 was the driest September on record for Australia and the second driest for Victoria.
In New South Wales, July to September 2018 was the driest on record.
Southern Australia continued its dry run into 2019. Tasmania had its second-driest January on record.
In NSW and southern Queensland, it was largely drier than average with some average to above average rainfall in March.
In 2018–19, north west Australia had a delayed start to the monsoon.
For the Northern Territory, it was the driest wet season since 1992–93, with total rainfall 34% below the long-term average.
For Western Australia, it was a dry second half of the financial year, with May the third driest on record for the state.
Parts of the goldfields and central wheatbelt in Western Australia were the exception receiving a near-average or wetter than average twelve months.
Over the twelve-month period, central and northern Queensland were the only extensive areas of above average rainfall.
This was partly due to record rainfall in late January and February 2019 associated with an intense and very slow-moving monsoon low, and Cyclone Trevor.
The prolonged spell of drier-than-usual weather has contributed to the catchment for Australia’s largest river system amassing multi-year rainfall deficiencies not seen in the last 120 years.
According to the BOM’s most recent drought statement, the 32-month period from January 2017 to August 2019 was the driest such period on record for the Murray Darling Basin and NSW.
During this time, rainfall was 40% below the long-term average for the northern Murray-Darling Basin and 34% below average in the southern basin.
A prolonged spell of drier-than-usual weather has seen some areas of eastern Australia fall more than one metre behind their usual rainfall totals during the last three years.
Moree cattle producer Andrew Doering describes the current drought as the “mother of all droughts”.
He and his wife Angela are based on Strathdarr, a 1600-hectare property, where they run a stud and commercial herd, and grow grain.
Three years ago, with drought taking a firm grip on their NSW property and armed with a vision to head north, they purchased New Haven, a 1800-hectare property at Tansey, west of Gympie, in Queensland.
They also agist blocks at St George and Ban Ban Springs, Queensland.
The expanded land holdings have provided a buffer from the continued dry spell in NSW, with the bulk of the family’s commercial and stud herds now based in southern Queensland.
At Moree, the lack of rain – the property’s annual average rainfall is normally 26 inches per year; to date it’s received four inches – has impacted severely on the family’s other commodity, grain. Andrew hasn’t planted grain for two years and only half of the 400 hectares of oats he planted this year survived.
As is often the case in times of natural disaster, when one industry suffers, another benefits.
Andrew was able to capitalise on high grain prices in recent years – and received some of the best returns on offer.
“Looking back now I would have loved to have kept it,” Andrew said.
At the time it was the right decision, but none of us saw this – the mother of all droughts – coming. “It will rain again, and that’s what we tell ourselves.Andrew Doering, Moree
Andrew said it was heartening to hear stories of local businesses reaching out to clients to see how they were faring.
“I’ve been flat out feeding cattle and haven’t had a need to buy any chemicals, but I got a call from my chemical supplier out of the blue to see how I was doing,” Andrew said.
“I was really impressed. There’s a lot of us who work on our own so it’s important that people reach out.”
What is the outlook?
The Northern Australia Climate Program outlook review (September 2019) paints a grim picture for the months ahead.
Report writers Professor Roger Stone and Dr Chelsea Jarvis found there is a low rainfall probability for much of Australia, especially northern Australia.
“In terms of three-month total rainfall, the southern oscillation index (SOI) phase system indicates around 40%-50% probability of exceeding the long-term median over most of eastern Australia,” the report said.
The UK Met Office forecast and the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMRWF) seasonal forecast indicate a low rainfall probability for eastern and northern Australia until January 2020.
The Bureau of Meteorology ACCESS model shows a very low probability of exceeding median rainfall – about 20% over almost all of eastern Australia, September to December 2019, with north west Western Australia being the exception where probabilities are closer to ‘normal’.
The long dry spell is now providing additional fuel for bushfires – with dry conditions and warm and windy weather combining to increase the fire risk.
Looking to a hot, wet summer in Queensland
Central Queensland cattleman John Baker, Middlemount, who also serves as central regional president for Queensland lobby group, AgForce, said areas south of the Capricorn Highway at Rockhampton were deep in the grips of drought.
“Areas north of the Capricorn Highway are generally not too bad, however, it gets drier the further south you go,” John said.
“There are pockets where they received good grass rain earlier in the year.
“We were fortunate to get some rain early in the year, just at the right time to get quite a good body of grass growing.”
With very little substantial rain falling since March this year, John said there was hope for a return of the typical hot, wet summer, with the past winter being typically cold and dry, in many parts.