The combined New Zealand annual land and sea surface temperature record, in °C, from 1867 to 2018, compared with the 1981-2010 average. The blue bars represent individual years, and the red line trends over groups of years. Graphic: Jim Salinger

By Jim Salinger and James Renwick
29 January 2019

(The Conversation) – As the Australian heatwave is spilling across the Tasman and pushing up temperatures in New Zealand, we take a look at the conditions that caused a similar event last year and the impacts it had.

Last summer's heatwave gave New Zealand its warmest summer and the warmest January on record. It covered an area of four million square kilometres (comparable to the Indian subcontinent), including the land, the eastern Tasman Sea and the Pacific east of New Zealand to the Chatham Islands.

In our research, we looked at what happened and why, and found that the heatwave affected many sectors, leading to early grape harvests and killing farmed fish in parts of the country.

Drivers of warmer than average conditions

We used a combination of land and ocean temperature observations, large-scale analyses of the atmospheric circulation, and ocean modelling to understand the drivers of the 2017/18 summer heatwave. It was memorable for a number of extreme events and statistics.

The average air temperature was 2.2°C above the 1981-2010 normal of 16.7°C, and it was the warmest summer ever recorded in more than 150 years. The number of extreme warm days and warm nights was also the highest recorded, going back several decades.

The peak month was January 2018, 3.2°C above normal and the warmest month recorded in observations as far back as 1867. Ocean surface temperatures were similarly extreme, with a marine heatwave that lasted about five months, at 2.0°C above normal at its peak. […]

Impacts and repercussions

New Zealand was affected by more than its normal share of ex-tropical cyclones, notably Fehi and Gita. They brought strong winds, storm surges and heavy rainfalls that caused flooding as they passed through. The warm ocean waters around New Zealand would have helped maintain the intensity of the storms and supply moisture to drive the heavy downpours.

The warm conditions caused massive ice loss in South Island glaciers, estimated to be the largest annual loss of glacier ice in nearly 60 years of records for the Southern Alps. Satellite data from end-of-summer snowline measurements at the Tasman Glacier suggest that the Southern Alps lost 9% of glacier ice during last summer alone.

Warm air temperatures had a marked effect on managed and natural ecosystems. The Marlborough grape harvest was unusually early in 2018, two to three weeks ahead of the normal maturation time. Marine ecosystems were significantly disrupted. Coastal kelp forests struggled to grow in the warm sea. In southern New Zealand, the temperature threshold was breached three times, resulting in substantial losses of kelp canopies.

For the first time, Atlantic salmon had to be imported as farmed fish died in salmon farms in the Marlborough Sounds. Commercial fishers reported that snapper was spawning approximately six weeks early off the South Island coast, and Queensland groper was reported in northern New Zealand, 3000km out of range. [more]

Counting the cost of last summer's NZ heatwave

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