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Behind the big dry

A 27-year dry spell affecting the southwestern part of Australia could be a foretaste of future national experiences under the Greenhouse Effect.

CSIRO scientists are investigating the possibility that a climate shift has brought a long-term decline in rainfall over southwest Western Australia. Measurements indicate a slow decline in rainfall since the 1940s-50s, leading to the present drier regime, says Dr Bryson Bates of CSIRO Land and Water.

In some parts of the southwest, average rainfall appears to have settled into a pattern about 20 per cent lower than the norm for the first half of the 20th century but, as the thirsty landscape soaks up more moisture, this has led to a 40 per cent reduction in inflow to Perths dams. At the start of this summer, the dams were less than a third of capacity.

The immediate cause, says Dr Bates, is a clearly discernible climate shift that took place in the mid 1970s.

At that time the tropical Pacific warmed abruptly and stayed warm, and there was a sudden warming in sea surface temperatures in the Indian Ocean. Since then there have been unusually frequent, persistent and intense El Ninos, and fewer La Ninas.

Working from global atmospheric data, the researchers have been trying to work out what this all means for local climate and rainfall across the southern part of WA.

The most obvious fact to emerge is that there are now more dry days than before due to an increase in the presence of high pressure cells to southeast of the region, causing moisture-bearing air streams to miss the continent. The encouraging news is that the system appears to have stabilized somewhat, although there is a large amount of year-to-year variability.

The main change lies in the absence of particularly wet winters, which once recharged the dams. Since 1975 there has been only one winter of above average inflow to the dams, compared with 13 in the period from 1950 to 1975.

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Contact: Dr Bryson Bates
Bryson.Bates@csiro.au
61-8-9333-6330
CSIRO Australia
14-Mar-2002


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