The 1982- 83 drought

The El Niño episode of 1982-83 overlapped with a drought that may have been one of if not the worst for 100 years in Victoria, New South Wales and southern Queensland.  During this event;

  • The 1982 winter rains (June -September) failed over the south-eastern grain and pasture areas of Australia; and
  • In northern New South Wales and southern Queensland, the summer rains (December 1982 to February 1983) also failed.

During the 1982-83 El Niño episode virtually all of Victoria and southern New South Wales, and much of the settled areas of South Australia had record low rainfall for the period of April 1982-February 1983.  It is generally agreed that the widespread bushfires that ended in the enormous infernos of Ash Wednesday on 16 February 1983 were a direct consequence of the drought conditions brought about by the El Niño event.

Other major events that occurred during this period were:

  • The drought exacerbated land degradation throughout VIC, NSW and QLD;
  • Soils that were dry and powder-like blew away in the wind;
  • A dust storm on Feb 8-9 1983 blew away an estimated 150,000 tons of soil from farms in north-west Victoria;
  • More than 11,000 tons of dust landed on Melbourne; some was blown as far as New Zealand;
  • Bush fires killed 72 people and left 8,000 homeless and property damage estimated at A$400 million;
  • When the rains finally came, the burned areas were severely eroded, some having lost as much as 43 tons of soil per hectare;
  • Wildlife losses were not well documented but estimates suggests that up to 70% of the kangaroo population in commercial shootings zones died between November 1982-1983;
  • The total cost of the 1982-83 El Niño in Australia was estimated at more than Aust $3,000 million.

In the autumn (March to May) of 1983 the drought was broken by torrential rains in eastern Australia.  Sheep that had been weakened by the drought suffered severely and many were drowned or starved, and foot-rot caused more death.  Total losses from this El Niño episode were estimated in excess of $3 billion which is substantial considering this was 1982-83.