The early 2000’s in Australia

The early 2000’s produced another weak to moderate El Niño event that had a very strong impact in Australia by causing a major drought that then resulted in a series of devastating bushfires across NSW and VIC.  The major 2002-03 drought had a lack of rainfall between March 2002 to January 2003 that ranked in both severity and extent with the extreme droughts of 1902 and 1982-83.  Practically all parts of the country were affected during this period, and in southern areas this aggravated the effects of several preceding years of very dry conditions.  The extreme dryness coincided with exceptionally warm temperatures with maximum temperatures averaging new Australian records in each of the season’s autumn, winter and spring by a wide margin.

The map of Australia in Figure 5, below, from the Australian Bureau of Meteorology shows the extent of the drought affected areas between March 2002 and January 2003.  This map shows that approximately 2/3 of Australia had below average or worse rainfall with at least half of the remaining 1/3 of Australia being only average in its rainfall. The Central Coast along with the rest of NSW was severely affected by these very dry conditions.

Figure 1:  A map of Australia showing rainfall deciles in the period from 1 March 2002 to 31 January 2003.
(Source: Australian Bureau of Meteorology, ENSO Wrap-Up)

Nearly five years of drought and widespread dry conditions made 2002 one of Australia’s driest and warmest years on record.  Victoria experienced an exceptionally dry year; with a spring rainfall well below average, and warmer and drier than average winter and spring months.  As a result, the State’s forests and lands dried out significantly in the lead up to fire season and by late November, forest fire activity was running around 2 months ahead of normal. By the end of November the total number of forest fires reached 328, compared to the 20-year average of 120 fires.  This figure ran only slightly behind the Ash Wednesday season, indicating that a bad fire season was about to happen (see text above to find out more about Ash Wednesday (Note: link to previous, targeted section on Ash Wednesday)).

In Victoria an average summer usually sees around 620 wildfires that burn around 110,000 hectares but in the 2002-2003 fire season, 858 wildfires were attended by emergency personnel (8 of them being interstate).  Lightning caused approximately 30% of all fires with the other major causes being deliberate lighting, campfires and barbeques and private and departmental burning/relights.  In total, fires in the 2002-2003 season burnt over 1.34 million hectares which was twelve times the usual or expected land area.

Figure 2:  A fire near Beechworth, Victoria in 2002

(Source: Victorian Department of Sustainability and the Environment)

The satellite photo below was taken by Geoscience Australia on the 27th December 2001 and shows the huge range of areas affected by bushfires that are a direct result of the early 2000’s El Niño event.  Sydney is the northern-most blue point marked on the coast.  This bushfire season saw emergency services from Australia (and around the world who came to our aid) pushed to the limit.

Figure 3:  A satellite image taken on 27 December 2001 by ACRES, Geoscience Australia.  It is produced here as a mosaic of 8 SPOT scenes covering about 120km wide and 240km long, stretching from Wyong in the north to Jervis Bay in the south. Healthy vegetation shows as bright red, forest as dark red, ocean and lakes as dark blue, burnt areas as black and smoke as white

(Source: SPOT Image acquired 27 December 2001 by ACRES, Geoscience Australia. © CNES 2001.)

Above average rainfall in February 2003 raised hopes of an easing of severe drought conditions. However, this did not occur and totals for the remainder of 2003 were insufficient in many areas to overcome existing rainfall deficiencies - especially in parts of Queensland and southeast Victoria where 2003 was another rather dry year.  The map of Australia in Figure 6, below, shows the average rainfall pattern for the year 2003. Like most of NSW, QLD and VIC, the Central Coast of NSW experienced average conditions when rainfall was totalled across the whole year but the very dry months of the year are not revealed in this type of map.

Figure 4:  A map of Australia showing rainfall deciles for the period from 1 January 2003 to 31 December 2003
(Source: Australian Bureau of Meteorology)