screengrab new zealand farmland submerged
Drone footage shows extent of flooding as cyclone rips through New Zealand
01:54 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

New Zealand’s Hawke’s Bay is known for its fine wine, but many of the region’s vineyards are now under water, along with homes and roads in the aftermath of Cyclone Gabrielle.

The weather system didn’t make landfall in New Zealand, but it caused widespread destruction, killing at least eight people, displacing thousands, destroying roads and cutting access to smaller communities in the country’s northeast.

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins flew over the flood-hit areas on Thursday and said the “extensive” damage had made it clear the country was unprepared for extreme weather events – and there is a lot of work to be done.

“We’re talking about roading, we’re talking about telecommunications, we’re talking about electricity and energy. There’s no question, we’ve got some big challenges ahead,” he said, while visiting the flood-ravaged city of Gisborne.

“We can’t continue the way that we have been going. We are going to see more of these types of weather events. So we have to be prepared.”

Flooding following Cyclone Gabrielle on February 16, 2023 in Napier, New Zealand.

Hipkins didn’t mention the climate crisis by name, but his climate change minister James Shaw made the link clear in an emotional address to parliament two days earlier.

“I don’t think I’ve ever felt as sad or as angry about the lost decades that we spent bickering and arguing about whether climate change was real or not,” Shaw said on Tuesday. “It is clearly here now, and if we do not act it will get worse.”

What’s made this week’s devastation so shocking is that it came just two weeks after a short, sharp deluge in Auckland, the country’s largest city of 1.7 million people.

That downpour caused flash flooding and landslides, and contributed to New Zealand’s wettest month on record – all during what’s typically one of the driest months of the year.

Residents clean up silt following flood waters on February 15, 2023 in Napier, New Zealand.

River cities increasingly vulnerable

New Zealand owes its stunning landscape partly to the country’s long record of intense rainfall. Rain regularly dumped on its mountains has carved rivers that rage after downpours.

Many towns and cities sit on their banks – established to take advantage of access to ports and trade routes, which for a long time has served communities well.

“New Zealand is very good at building communities on floodplains – there’s a large fraction of the population that live close to rivers that tend to flood,” said James Renwick, a weather and climate researcher at Victoria University of Wellington. “There tends to be the attitude that we can build stop banks and that will protect the community, and it does most of the time, until you get a really big event.”

Those really big events are expected to become more frequent as global temperatures warm. New Zealand lies in the South Pacific Ocean, and is vulnerable to tropical cyclones that typically form in the north but can affect any part of the country in their path. This week, the northeast suffered the biggest hit as Cyclone Gabrielle whipped up winds and days of rain.

La Niña, a weather event that results in warmer air and sea temperatures, also contributed to Gabrielle’s strength.

Sam Dean, principal scientist at the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research or NIWA, said climate change is not necessarily going to increase the frequency of tropical cyclones, but it will make them more powerful.

Trees damaged by gale force winds during storm Gabrielle at a commercial pine forest in Tongariro, New Zealand on February 14, 2023.
A view of flood damage in the the aftermath of cyclone Gabrielle in Hawke's Bay, New Zealand on February 15, 2023.

“They’re occurring over sea surface temperatures that are warmer than they were. The atmosphere is warmer and it’s holding more moisture, so there’s just more fuel, more energy available that makes them more intense, it makes them more damaging,” he said. “It makes the winds a little bit stronger. It makes the rainfall more significant.”

And cyclones like Gabrielle can form and move around just about any part of the country, he said, so the risk isn’t just in one part of the nation. “I don’t think there’s any part of New Zealand that isn’t at risk of extreme rainfall,” he said.

But heavy rainfall isn’t the only risk posed by climate change in New Zealand, long considered a safe haven by those seeking refuge from global troubles.

Parts of the country have experienced drought in recent years, and even a few years ago, Auckland – the city hit by a short bout of intense rainfall in January – was close to running out of water.

“The whole area is usually very dry and very close to drought this time of year. Now it’s soaking wet,” said Daithi Stone, a climate scientist at NIWA. “But that risk of drought hasn’t gone away, (and) in our predictions of how climate change is going to affect New Zealand, that’s a feature that seems to be fairly robust – that Northland (north of Auckland) will get drier.”

Heat waves could also become a risk in a country that’s not accustomed to unbearably hot temperatures, Stone added.

“We’re not used to heat waves … over here, it’s a novel concept. And I think we may get a fright sometime in the not too distant future,” he said.

An NH90 helicopter and crew recover people from the rooftops of their homes in Esk Valley, Napier in this handout photo released on February 14, 2023.
A damaged bridge in the Napier region, New Zealand, on February 15, 2023.

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