Drought and Climate Change Part 2: Rainfall deficiency

In my last post, I looked at long term rainfall trends across Southern, South Eastern, and South Western Australia, and found no cause for alarm at recent rainfall decline.  Droughts can occur at any time and cause much hardship across wide parts of the country.  Global Warming Enthusiasts are gnashing their teeth, believing man-made climate change is making droughts worse.  Greg Jericho in the Guardian wrote last Thursday 30th August, “If you are a prime minister going out to the rural areas and you’re not talking about climate change, and you’re not suggesting that droughts are more likely to occur and thus farmers need to take greater responsibility, then you are failing in your job.”

Are droughts really “more likely to occur” with climate change, and is there any evidence they are becoming more frequent, more intense, and more widespread with global warming?

The Bureau of Meteorology says:

Drought in general means acute water shortage.

The Bureau’s drought maps highlight areas considered to be suffering from a serious or severe rainfall deficiency…. for three months or more….


  • Serious rainfall deficiency: rainfall lies above the lowest five per cent of recorded rainfall but below the lowest ten per cent (decile range 1) for the period in question,
  • Severe rainfall deficiency: rainfall is among the lowest five per cent for the period in question.”

This map of meteorological drought (areas in the lowest ten and five percent of 12 months rainfall to 31 August) shows the extent across Australia:

Fig. 1:  Recent 12 month Rainfall Deficiency Australia

12m drought map

Parts of central and southern inland Queensland, parts of eastern South Australia, many parts of New South Wales, and small areas of Victoria are in drought.  Notice that the droughted areas are separated by areas that are not in drought.

But, but… all of NSW is in drought, isn’t it?

100% of NSW has been drought declared, and 54.7% of Queensland, and indeed some parts are in a very bad way.   But “drought declaration” is the term the media, politicians, and general public don’t understand.  They assume that because 100% of NSW is drought declared, this means all of NSW is in drought.  Not so.  Drought declaration is a political or at best administrative instrument for giving drought assistance to farmers and communities.  Some areas of Queensland that have not yet been drought declared really are in the grip of drought; some “drought declared” areas of NSW are not in drought, as this map of NSW (6 months March to August) shows:

Fig. 2: 6 month Rainfall deficiency NSW

NSW map 6m

Of course the blank areas have had below average rainfall, which may turn into full blown drought, so the NSW government is being proactive.  However, they are not at this time in meteorological drought with serious or severe rainfall deficiency.

Trends in Drought Incidence

In the bigger picture, how widespread, how intense, how long lasting, and how frequent are droughts becoming in Australia?  For this analysis I use monthly rainfall data from 1900 to July 2018 from the Bureau of Meteorology at their Climate Change page, and calculate the number of months where the rainfall total of the previous 12, 18, 24, or 36 months shows severe deficiency (in the lowest 5 percent of all months since 1900) or serious deficiency (in the lowest 10 percent).  (I am looking at droughts that last at least 12 months, not just short dry spells, and 12 months total rainfall includes rain in all seasons.)

I do this for various regions, as shown on the map below.

Fig. 3:  Australian Regions

Climate regions

I have plotted the number of consecutive months where the 12, 18, 24, and 36 month totals are in the lowest 5% and 10% of their respective values since 1900, and calculated the trend in months per century of increase or decrease. There are 96 plots, so I will only show a couple of examples, and summarise the results in Table 1 below.

Table 1:  Trends in Drought Incidence (Months per 100 Years) for various Australian Regions

Trend table

A negative trend indicates decreasing drought incidence, shaded green; a positive trend indicates increasing incidence, shaded pink.

Australia wide, and in the regions of Northern and Southern Australia and the Murray Darling Basin, and South Australia as a whole, since 1900 droughts of all lengths have become less frequent, and because these are broad regions, less widespread.  There is no evidence that climate change is making droughts more likely to occur, except for smaller areas (Victoria, Tasmania, and SW Australia) which have an increasing frequency of droughts of all lengths.

36 month dry periods are more frequent in SW Australia, SE Australia, Eastern Australia, Tasmania, Victoria, (and interestingly Queensland, but only for <10% deficiency).

Some examples will illustrate the complexity of the picture.

Fig. 4:  Number of consecutive months per calendar year of 12 months severe rain deficiency: Australia

12m 5% Aust

Fig. 5:  Periods of 36 months serious rain deficiency: Australia

36m 10% Aust

In the past droughts of all lengths and severity were more widespread across Australia.

Fig. 6:  Periods of 36 months severe rain deficiency: Southern Australia

36m 5% Sthn Aust

Similarly, multi-year periods of severe rain deficiency were much more frequent and widespread across Southern Australia before 1950.  In the last 50 years there has been only one month where the 36 month total was in the lowest 5th percentile.

Fig. 7:  Periods of 12 months severe rain deficiency: New South Wales

12m 5% NSW

Fig. 8:  Periods of 36 months severe rain deficiency: New South Wales

36m 5% NSW

Fig. 9:  Periods of 12 months serious rain deficiency: New South Wales

12m 10% MDB

Fig. 10:  Periods of 36 months serious rain deficiency: New South Wales

36m 10% NSW

Across NSW, 4 months of 2018 had 12 month totals in the serious deficiency range, but none in the severe range.  Droughts of all severity and duration have become less frequent and widespread.  The Millennium Drought lasted longer but was less severe than the Federation Drought.

The Murray-Darling Basin lies across four states including most of NSW, and is Australia’s premier food and fibre producing region.  The current drought is affecting many areas in this region.

Fig. 10:  Periods of 12 months severe rain deficiency: Murray-Darling Basin

12m 5% MDB

Fig. 11:  Periods of 12 months serious rain deficiency: Murray-Darling Basin

12m 10% MDB

Fig. 12:  Periods of 36 months serious rain deficiency: Murray-Darling Basin

36m 10% MDB

We can conclude from these plots of the Murray-Darling Basin that this drought is patchy, and while nasty, is not the most intense or long lasting even in living memory, let alone on record, and that droughts are becoming less frequent and less widespread.

Fig. 13:  Periods of 36 months severe rain deficiency: Queensland

36m 5% Qld

Fig. 14:  Periods of 36 months serious rain deficiency: Queensland

36m 10% Qld

Queensland has little trend in frequency of drought with severe deficiency over three years but less severe droughts have been more frequent- due to the droughts of the 1990s and the Millennium drought.

Fig. 15:  Periods of 36 months serious rain deficiency: Victoria

36m 10% Vic

The Millennium Drought stands out as the longest period of widespread serious rain deficiency.

Fig. 16:  Periods of 36 months serious rain deficiency: South-West Australia

36m 10% SW Oz

Here we see that all but one month of all the 36 month periods of serious rain deficiency have occurred since 1970, reflecting the marked drying trend.  This really is an example of climate changing.

Winter rainfall

Fig. 17:  Winter Rainfall Deciles across Australia, 2018

winter rain 2018

According to the Climate Council, “Climate change has contributed to a southward shift in weather systems that typically bring cool season rainfall to southern Australia.”  However the usual areas affected by this southwards shift, Tasmania, south-west Victoria, southern South Australia, and most of the south-west of Western Australia, have had an average to above average winter.  Droughted areas are to the north.   The southwards shift of weather systems caused by Climate Change cannot be claimed to have any part in this drought.

Drought is a dreadful calamity wherever and whenever it occurs.  And on top of other difficulties in Queensland is the bureaucratic approval process under Vegetation Management regulations before graziers can push mulga to feed starving stock.

This drought may get worse if a full El Nino develops.  It is unlikely to break before six months or even 18 months.  By then it will be much more severe and widespread.  However, climate change has not caused this drought.  While there is evidence for increasing drought frequency and thus likelihood of more drought in the future in Tasmania, southern Victoria, southern South Australia, and the south-west of Western Australia, across the rest of Australia there is strong evidence that droughts have become less frequent, less severe, less widespread, and shorter.  If climate change is claimed as the cause of increasing droughts in the far southern regions, then climate change must also be causing less frequent droughts across the vast bulk of Australia, where droughts are always “likely to occur”, but not “more likely”.


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2 Responses to “Drought and Climate Change Part 2: Rainfall deficiency”

  1. ngard2016 Says:

    Ken, thanks for your thoughtful posts. Have you covered the IOD history of OZ droughts ? Here is the UNSW study of the IOD going back to 1880.

    This was released in 2009 just before the break of the last big Mill drought in 2010. Interesting that the IOD was in the positive or neutral phase from 1992 to 2009, so perhaps little wonder that the Mill drought was so severe.

    And in the 2016 flooding of the Murray there was a very strong negative IOD. ( warm waters off NW OZ) It’s hard to believe this was just 2 years ago and at that time there was a neutral ENSO as well. But certainly a lot of rainfall from the Indian ocean caused flooding of the MDB in winter to spring 2016.

    Here’s a link to the UNSW study in 2009. Any thoughts?


    • kenskingdom Says:

      Yep, IOD is a big contributor to SW and southern rain/ drought; ENSO and Madden-Julian to NE rain/drought. Climate change not so much. However the drying of SW WA spans + and – IOD.

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