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A climatic tale of two summers

Three years ago, the North Island experienced drought while the South Island was flooded. This year it’s the other way around.

In January 2023, Auckland experienced its wettest month on record. The heaviest rains occurred on the evening of January 27, when the city received a downpour that overwhelmed stormwater systems and caused widespread flash flooding. Over the course of 24 hours, the Albert Park Weather Station recorded 11 inches (280 mm) of rain, more than it typically receives during an entire summer.

Cars floated along suburban streets. Already soaked hills slipped and collapsed into buildings. Homes and businesses filled with water. Rivers have changed shape. Four people died. Countless pets and other animals have been lost. The rescuers were superhuman.

Flooding in the Wynyard district, Auckland. (Photo: Lynn Grieveson/Getty Images)

Cyclone Gabrielle arrived two weeks later. Once again Northland, Auckland, the Coromandel and the Bay of Plenty experienced flooding, this time accompanied by gale force winds. Tairāwhiti and Hawke’s Bay suffered its worst effects and the true extent remains unclear. Half a million people without electricity. Ten thousand displaced. The government declared the third state of national emergency in New Zealand’s history. Bursting floodgates, landslides, flooded houses, roof evacuations, communications breakdowns, and death upon death.

One fucking disaster after another.

During these events my mind keeps returning to a climate change documentary series I worked on with the Spinoff in 2020 called 100 Year Forecast. Specifically, I think of the opening lines of the second episode, “Where New Zealand will get wetter and drier”.

“February 4, 2020. Auckland is in the midst of a big, long drought. It hasn’t rained for 21 consecutive days. On the same day, rain pours from the sky in Fiordland and a state of emergency is declared. […] A country; two hydrological extremes”.

In February 2020, Aotearoa experienced extreme contrasts between Te Ika-a-Māui North Island and Te Waipounamu South Island. The lower part of the South Island experienced record rainfall. This led to a state of emergency being declared in Fiordland and Southland, as flooding and landslides forced many to evacuate. This was the largest air evacuation in New Zealand’s history, with over 700 people evacuated from affected areas.

While the South was grappling with extreme weather conditions, much of the North was facing a severe drought. A week after the emergency evacuations of Fiordland and Southland, the government declared drought in Northland and parts of Auckland. Months of low rainfall had led to water shortages and crop failures. The situation became so bad that the New Zealand Defense Force was dispatched to towns in Northland to assist in drought relief.

This map shows north in drought conditions and south in extremely wet conditions.

Extremely dry weather in the north; floods and floods in the south.

Three years later the situation is reversed. As Te Ika-a-Māui experiences devastating rainfall, much of Te Waipounamu has experienced record dry weather. In January 2023, 18 locations on the South Island saw low or near-record rainfall totals. Invercargill had its driest January since records began in 1900. Wānaka recorded just 4mm of rain for the entire month.

While climate change cannot be blamed for the existence of Cyclone Gabrielle or a prolonged absence of rain, the scientific consensus is that human warming intensifies these events. We’re getting a little warmer everywhere. With every degree of warming, the atmosphere can hold more moisture. A bigger bucket means heavier downpours. But we don’t know exactly where that water will fall from year to year, only that the future is likely to hold more extreme events as we continue to break temperature records.

I keep thinking about the contrasting summers of 2020 and 2023. And the science of the atmosphere. And the earth. And all those affected. And heartbreaking stories. And the nature of the media coverage. And the state of our infrastructure. And the role of politics. And the future of insurance. And action and inaction. And injustice.

Round and round and round.

The complexity makes me realize that I have a cartoon vision of climate change in my head. Obscure notions of buckets, greenhouses, thermostats and canaries in the coal mines. Metaphors that I have mistaken for knowledge. They help, but they are not the thing.

Humans have a tendency to avoid uncomfortable truths, whether they concern the environment, our own mortality, or some other difficult aspect of life. The first time I seriously engaged with the prospect of climate change was when I was a geography student in the 1990s. Since then I have worked extensively with environmental scientists and science communicators, exposing myself to the science and implications of climate change.

A car submerged in floodwater near Napier, Feb. 16, 2023. (Photo: STR/AFP via Getty Images)

Despite all those conversations, lectures, charts and maps, I haven’t internalized what a changing climate means. I recognize that difficult things will happen; yet I don’t Touch the scale and urgency of the problem. Not really. Not enough.

Staring at the maps of February 2020 and January 2023 as gale-force winds bend the oak outside and the radio shares stories of drowning livestock makes the need to cut carbon emissions feel urgent. But when the sun comes out and the water retreats, the urge risks turning into complacency. It’s a difficult needle to thread. We must find ways to collectively hold the gravity of our situation, not allow ourselves to be overwhelmed and give up.

Looking for guidance, I turned to the final episode of 100 Year Forecast. In the final moments, conservationist and iwi leader Mike Smith (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Kahu) confronts the early response to Covid-19.

“Imagine what would have happened if we had two years early to prepare for Covid-19 – how different things would have been. With climate change we have that lead time. We have the opportunity to plan it. And we have the opportunity to act.”

These words give me hope. There will be more devastating environmental events. But there is still time to act and limit its severity. The necessary actions are simple. Reduce your personal emissions. Reduce consumption and waste. Talk about climate change with the people in your life. Demand the action of elected representatives.

There is still time to act. We should act.

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