“The fact that our climate is changing is nothing new. Climate has always changed.” –A scientist quoted by Dr Patrick Grant

The Esk Valley flood of 1938

by Tony Orman

Last month Cyclone Gabrielle came, conquered and left a path of destruction and devastation on the North Island’s east coast, particularly Hawkes Bay. As shocking as the devastation was, the warnings were there in past climatic history. Extreme weather events due to natural climate change are nothing new. 

Recently a 2016 article in New Zealand Geographic (issue 142) by meteorologist Erick Brenstrum — a severe weather events specialist — was republished on-line.  In it, Erick Brenstrum recalled Hawkes Bay’s Esk Valley flood of April 1938 when in three days the region was saturated.

Fifty four bridges were washed away. Widespread slips buried houses. The Esk Valley hit hard just weeks ago by Cyclone Gabrielle, was devastated in 1938, by silt up to three metres deep. An estimated 12,000 cubic metres of slips blocked the Wairoa to Napier railway. 

That 1938 cyclone brought intense rain reaching 420 mm (almost 17 inches) in just 24 hours hard on the heels of record rain late January due to another tropical cyclone.

Wild weather in 1936, 1939 and 1897

Only two years earlier — in 1936 — the North Island was slammed by a tropical cyclone. Erick Brenstrum rated the 1936 storm as probably worse than the tropical cyclone storm Giselle that later hit on 10 April 1968, killing 51 passengers on the ill-fated Wahine inter-island ferry. 

Yet the 1936 storm nearly had its own ferry disaster when the Rangatira, caught by the storm 9 km off the port of Lyttelton ran onto rocks, damaging its front end, resulting in the ferry being forced to reverse back to Lyttelton.

The storm ravaged the east coast of both islands. At Coromandel Peninsula a house was washed out to sea, killing the sole occupant. Four train carriages were blown off the tracks south of Palmerston North. 

Extreme weather turned up in late July 1939. Incredibly snow fell from Cape Maria van Diemen in Northland to Southland. In Auckland, five centimetres of snow fell on Mt Eden. The Bombay Hills shone white for most of the morning. In Gisborne, snow fell for nearly three hours. At Paremata, just north of Wellington, eight hectares of the harbour froze over while tidal waters also froze in the Bay of Plenty.

History has recorded other storms. A severe storm struck the lower to central North Island on 16 April 1897. The ship Zuleika ran aground near Cape Palliser, east of Wellington, with the loss of 12 lives, and severe flooding. At Clive in Hawkes Bay the flooding caused the loss of a further 12 lives. There were six further unconfirmed reports of drowning, bringing the total loss of life directly related to the storm event to between 25 and 31.

The research of Patrick Grant

Esk Valley 2023

Tropical cyclones have been a characteristic of New Zealand’s climate since time immemorial, some decades worse than others, dependent on the cycles of climate change.

In the 1980s botanist and hydrologist Dr Patrick Grant of Hawkes Bay researched erosion causes in the Ruahine Ranges. 

The motivation for his study was reading the diaries of 19th century missionary-explorer William Colenso who told of massive land slips, lifeless tangled trees in forests and stream beds choked with shingle and dead trees. This was mystifying as at the time, Forest and Bird and catchment boards had blamed the erosion on wild animals such as deer. But Colenso’s crossings of the Ruahine Range were well before the first deer were liberated.

Dr Grant wrote in his book Hawkes Bay Forests of Yesteryear, published in 1996, that the erosion Colenso saw in the 1840s “was no doubt the effects of gales and heavy rainfalls.” He scientifically identified eight “warm erosion” periods stretching back to 350–450 AD. Between warm erosion periods generally being 50 to 100 years each, “are cooler, tranquil intervals.”

“Increased warmth and storminess — are linked to wide-scale changes in atmospheric pressure — where increased tropical cyclone frequency has also been recorded.”

Drought climate extremes also featured between the eight “warm erosion” periods. Historical photos in 1919 of the Ruahine Range showed standing dead tree trunks.  Dr Grant identified these as caused by droughts in 1907-08, and 1914-15 with the dryness aggravated by abnormally dry years in between 1908 and 1914.

“The dry period culminating in 1914-15 was undoubtedly the greatest drought to effect the vegetation.” Drought or storms are part of the natural climate cycles. In his book Dr Grant quoted another scientist as saying “The fact that our climate is changing is nothing new. Climate has always changed.”

Weather extremes are natural

“Climate change” extremists in 2023 blame human induced causes, such as farm stock emissions, for extreme weather i.e. cyclones and droughts. But science shows the extremes are natural and have been happening over decades, centuries and indeed millenia.  Climate change (natural) through ice ages and warm periods, has always been.

Bizarrely, the government’s Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) ignores the carbon sequestering value of pasture and in a bizarre, illogical rule, any trees or shrubs under 5 metres tall are excluded from sequestering calculations. Yet many native plants are, even at maturity, under 5 metres in height. 

The ETS seems designed to be anti-farming and more a political football for urban-based Wokeist-tending Greenies and many politicians to gleefully kick about.

Hypocrisy over emissions

Hypocrisy abounds. Ironically the politicians and the urbanites leave a big carbon footprint flying regularly internationally to places such as the Gold Coast or Bali or to recent climate change talk-fests.

Governments ignore that people remain the growing problem and the greatest cause of emissions. The more people the more emissions. Yet New Zealand has no population policy. 

Director-generals of the Department of Conservation and extreme green groups blame animals, both farmed and even wild. In 2007 the Department of Conservation’s director-general bizarrely blamed wild deer for farting and belching. They need to be exterminated he ranted.

Animals are an easy target. They cannot argue back in defence, but people can. Deer and cows do not vote but people do. Yet ironically it is people that are the cause of the looming environmental problem – or more particularly numbers of people. 

People fart and belch just like cows and deer. Furthermore people drive cars which belch emissions and fly regularly on jet planes that fart gases and particles — which contribute to climate change. Humans demand resources, flush toilets, use chemicals and throw away garbage. Deer, sheep and cattle don’t.

Failings of central and local government

The planet cannot tolerate infinite growth in numbers of people. That is the crux of global warming. Human population is the real and bigger crisis.

Warnings about Nature’s extreme weather events were there in the storms of the 1930s and other decades such as the 1970s and 1980s decades when tropical cyclones Bola and Alison wreaked havoc. Simply meteorological history. 

Despite the warnings of history, myopic policies and development by central and local governments has led to building towns on flood plains and sprawling over productive fertile soils. Wetlands which absorb rainfall have been thoughtlessly drained while the “concrete jungle” of business, industrial and urban with high run-off due to minimal absorption has aggravated the problem of flooding.

Government and local councils continue to ignore the history of continual climate change.

But questions remain. To what extent have humans changed the climate? Is the human factor insignificant? Has it been exaggerated by ignoring natural climate change? Or is the situation worse than is realised?

As for assessing exactly the human contribution to global warming, politicians and climate change advocates need to apply the equation — Natural Climate Change plus or minus Human Induced Climate Change equals the Actual Climate Change.

Footnote: Tony Orman (MNZIS) is a Marlborough-based author, conservationist, journalist and former town and country planner