Weather News

From dust and despair to "the crop of a lifetime"

Anthony Sharwood, Tuesday September 29, 2020 - 10:06 EST

The dramatically contrasting satellite images say it all.

With consistent rainfall in 2020, bare, brown earth across vast tracts of south-east Australia has transformed to lush green pasture.

Images: Visible satellite images taken by NASA's Terra satellite on December 10, 2019 (top) and September 7, 2020 (bottom). Source: NASA Worldview

But it's the smiles on peoples faces where you can really see the difference.

"The rain has been a life-saver," Dubbo district sheep and cattle farmer Jonathan Marchant told Weatherzone.

Marchant works a 500 hectare sheep and cattle property 42 kilometres out of town. That's small by local standards, but at the height of the three-year drought, he was spending up to $3000 a week on feed.

"I had to sell tractors and everything just to keep stock alive," he said.

Dubbo, population 38,000, in the central west of New South Wales, had its driest year on record in 2019. The rural city at the heart of prime cattle, sheep, and grain country averages around 588 mm of rainfall annually but received just 211.2 mm last year. The city and its surrounds looked more like the desert. Indeed, Dubbo's 2019 rainfall was considerably less than the annual average of 282.8 mm in Alice Springs in Australia's Red Centre.

The central west plains of New South Wales had become so reminiscent of a desert that by September 2019, dust storms were almost a weekly event. The vast swirling clouds of dirt kept rolling into town all the way into January 2020.

And then a different type of storm started appearing. The welcome kind. In February, Dubbo recorded 81.8 mm of rain across 15 rain days. At that point, some farmers planted crops for the first time in three years.

Then came follow-up falls totalling more than 100 mm in both March and April. May and June were a little dry, but steady falls in July, August and September have already brought the city's running annual rainfall to almost 600 mm. The transformation at ground level has been incredible.

The change in the outlook of farmers and people in town is even more profound.

Lucy Thackray is a reporter with ABC Western Plains. She told Weatherzone that Dubbo was a town on the brink.

"People couldn't deal with another year of no income and the incredible costs of looking after their land," she said.

"If the drought and Covid had coincided, so many businesses would have closed. Now many farmers are looking at the best crop they've seen in their lifetime.

"You'd drive around the region and there wasn't a blade of grass. Everything was just dirt and people were worried the soil profile wouldn't recover. It felt like the end of the world. It was just completely depressing and bleak. Now the whole landscape is covered in green.

"Farmers have seen 40-50 mm a month continuously. For once the rain has stopped when they needed it to, then started again when they needed it. It's a recipe for a perfect season, although some locals are a little worried about too much rain as we head into October."

As you can see in the year-to-date (January to late September) BoM graphic below, most of NSW is having an above-average year in terms of rainfall.

Image: Percentage of the average January to September rainfall seen in NSW so far this year. Source: Bureau of Meteorology.

That dark green blob near the centre of the state where precipitation totals have exceeded the average by up over 150 percent? That's the Dubbo region.

As mentioned, the flow-on effects of the steady rainfall go well beyond water. While 2020 will not be remembered fondly by most people for a host of reasons, for farmers and residents of Dubbo, this will go down as the year that hope returned.

"It's heaps busier in town," Jonathan Marchant said.

"People are happier. There's less depression."

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