El Nino bringing big threat of drought to Australia

Australia is going into summer with less water and a heightened chance of bushfires, as the strong El Nino nears its peak, the Bureau of Meteorology says. Source: AAP

Australian farmers are facing a potentially scorching end to the year as the threat of drought from a very large El Nino intensifies.

Forecasters say the weather event is tipped to rival the monster El Nino of 1997.


El Nino is a natural weather phenomenon which occurs every two to seven years and lasts six to 18 months.


It manifests when the ocean-surface temperature in the eastern tropical Pacific becomes much warmer than average, influencing global weather patterns.


El Nino can lead to drier-than-usual conditions across eastern and northern Australia.


It also brings a lower chance of cyclones to the north, but the risk of fire in the south-east is higher, as are more extreme temperatures everywhere.


University of Adelaide senior lecturer Seth Westra, an expert in climate change and climate variability, says the impacts of El Nino are quite large for Australia.


"In Australia, the main consequences are droughts, particularly around the eastern third of the country but also other parts of the country. So people around the Murray-Darling Basin, for example, will potentially really feel the consequences of much drier, warmer temperatures, less rainfall, than they'll usually be used to. And that can then have impacts on things like farming, agriculture and water supplies and so on."


The Bureau of Meteorology has issued its tropical-cyclone season outlook for 2015 to 2016 and says there is a 64 per cent chance of fewer cyclones than average.


The bureau says the strong El Nino in the tropical Pacific Ocean is very likely to dominate the coming cyclone season.


The bureau's head of climate analysis, David Jones, says it is expected to peak around midsummer.


"Typically, when we look at El Nino, we expect the El Nino event to peak around the start of summer, so we're probably getting fairly close to the peak of this event. Now, once we move into 2016, the event should weaken. So we should see some weakening of the impact, but it's certainly got a few more runs to run."


The spike in warm weather is bad news for the nation's farmers, who are already experiencing the big dry.


Victorian Farmers Federation president Peter Tuohey says most crops are failing in the region.


"Unfortunately, there's been little to no spring rainfall, with unseasonally hot temperatures, which has really impacted, pretty much, on pasture and crops. So most crops are finishing off or dying altogether. So it's a very tough spring."


Mr Touhey has called on farmers to support each other over what will be a long and difficult summer.


"One of the things farmers should do is keep an eye on their neighbours. When it's extremely tough, as it is this year, farmers need to keep talking to their neighbours and other farmers around the district, make sure they're looking after themselves, because it is a tough time. And just keep a close eye on everybody. And wives, as well, need to keep a close eye on their husbands, because it's a time when depression can set in, particularly under these severe financial times."


During the very strong El Nino of 1997 and 1998, the impact on rainfall tended to be confined to the south-east coast, while a weaker 2002-2003 event resulted in significant drought.


But Dr Westra, from the University of Adelaide, says it is hard to guess whether El Nino could set a record this time.


"These things are very hard to predict, and I guess predictions do change a little bit from week to week, because there's just a lot of variability and randomness in the climate. And so I wouldn't want to say this will definitely be a record-breaking El Nino system. Having said that, the signs are that there'll be a very, very large El Nino and (it) could well be equal to, or bigger than, the largest one that happened in, from memory, '97."


He urges Australians to be prepared for a drier season.


"It's certainly something to be aware of. It's certainly something to take care, in terms of how we manage our water supplies going into our summer and making sure that we're sort of able to adapt to, potentially, much drier, warmer conditions than we'd normally be used to."


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