Articles | Volume 18, issue 6
Research article
18 Jun 2014
Research article |  | 18 Jun 2014

Links between the Big Dry in Australia and hemispheric multi-decadal climate variability – implications for water resource management

D. C. Verdon-Kidd, A. S. Kiem, and R. Moran

Abstract. Southeast Australia (SEA) experienced a protracted drought during the mid-1990s until early 2010 (known as the Big Dry or Millennium Drought) that resulted in serious environmental, social and economic effects. This paper analyses a range of historical climate data sets to place the recent drought into context in terms of Southern Hemisphere inter-annual to multi-decadal hydroclimatic variability. The findings indicate that the recent Big Dry in SEA is in fact linked to the widespread Southern Hemisphere climate shift towards drier conditions that began in the mid-1970s. However, it is shown that this link is masked because the large-scale climate drivers responsible for drying in other regions of the mid-latitudes since the mid-1970s did not have the same effect on SEA during the mid- to late 1980s and early 1990s. More specifically, smaller-scale synoptic processes resulted in elevated autumn and winter rainfall (a crucial period for SEA hydrology) during the mid- to late 1980s and early 1990s, which punctuated the longer-term drying. From the mid-1990s to 2010 the frequency of the synoptic processes associated with elevated autumn/winter rainfall decreased, resulting in a return to drier than average conditions and the onset of the Big Dry. The findings presented in this paper have marked implications for water management and climate attribution studies in SEA, in particular for understanding and dealing with "baseline" (i.e. current) hydroclimatic risks.