SHORT BUT SHARP - THE 1982-83 DROUGHT
In terms of short-term rainfall deficiencies (up to one year) and their
overall impact, the 1982-83 drought was perhaps Australia's most severe in the 20th century.
In autumn 1982 reasonable rains were fairly widespread,
except for southern Western Australia, which had an exceptionally dry
autumn. With the coming of winter, however, intense drought became established
in most areas east of a line from Alice Springs to Ceduna. Clear skies and
low atmospheric moisture levels were accompanied by frequent severe frosts
in June & July. By the end of August the wheat crop in eastern Australia
was on the verge of failure, and sheep prices plummeted as graziers reduced
flocks. Very dry conditions persisted through spring over eastern Australia
(except in coastal areas of northern NSW), with extensive areas experiencing
record or near-record low rainfall totals from April to December.
By November, dry soil in northwestern Victoria was blown away as dust;
water restrictions were imposed in Melbourne; and on 24 November the earliest Total
Fire Ban in 40 years was proclaimed in Victoria. The upper Murrumbidgee River became a
chain of waterholes: by year's end reservoirs fell to levels not known for many years.
The remains of Tallangatta and Bonnie Doon, Victorian towns relocated
in the 1950s to allow enlargement of Lake Hume and Lake Eildon, emerged
from the shrinking waters. The summer Wet season failed in the Northern
Territory and north Queensland, with record low summer rainfall in some
areas. What little rain there was often fell on bare earth and without
follow-up, and was therefore of little use. Only northeastern NSW and
southeastern Queensland truly escaped the drought.
The nadir was reached in February 1983, with record
low rainfall in parts of Tasmania, and virtually none at all in Victoria.
Fires flared in southeastern Tasmania on the 1st and 8th, spectacular
dust-storms swept Victoria on the 8th, and the Ash Wednesday fires devastated
Victoria and South Australia on the 16th. In far eastern Victoria, fires
burned unchecked for most of the month. Relief came at last in March:
ironically, the first rains arrived inopportunely at grape harvest time
in South Australia and Victoria. An intense low pressure system then
developed over northwestern Australia on the 12th, and over the next
week drifted eastward with heavy rain and flooding. It then tracked
south over NSW and Victoria, reaching Tasmania by the 23rd. Substantial rain
fell over almost all the drought area, with many record March totals.
Abundant follow-up rains in April and May signified the end of the drought.
Total losses attributed to this drought exceeded $3 billion.
Its association with the very strong El Niño event of 1982-83 marked the
transformation of El Niño from abstract climate phenomenon to common language,
and set the scene for many of today's climate forecasting techniques.
Rainfall deficiencies for the 12 months ended February 1983. Significant areas
of southeastern Australia had their driest March-February period on record (bright red). A much
broader area had one of their driest such periods on record.