Adaptation to climate variability and change


Increasing our scientific understanding of the climate system, our ability to predict the climate, and decision-making tools to help New Zealand to adapt to climate variability and change.

The problem

Variability in the climate on timescales of years to decades and beyond has significant effects on the New Zealand economy and environment. Better understanding of climate variability and climate change are potentially of huge benefit, both economically and environmentally. To reduce the nation’s vulnerability to changes in the climate system, and to enhance our ability to capitalise on climate-related opportunities, we must improve our ability to predict climate variability and change, based on firm scientific understanding.

The solution

We need to improve our understanding of the atmosphere-ocean climate system in our local region (the Southwest Pacific, New Zealand, the southern oceans and Antarctica) including how human activity affects that system. We need to better understand how the different components of the system interact and to define these interactions across a range of scales. How do global scales of climate variability and change affect the local New Zealand and Antarctic climate? How does local variability affect the global Earth system? This project concentrates on water in the climate system, covering the full hydrologic cycle: rainfall, snow and ice, river flows and hydrology, ocean circulation and air-sea interaction. Water availability is expected to become a key issue for the 21st century, as climate change shifts the patterns and intensity of rainfall worldwide.

Other primary research themes include analysis of observations, improvement of physical understanding and development of models that can simulate and predict the impacts of natural and human-induced variations and changes in climate. These form the basis of new tools to better understand and better adapt to climate variability and change. The tools have applications in areas such as sustainable regional development, the climate component of agricultural production and economic activity, energy generation, human health, and adaptation strategies in Maori and rural communities.

A key focus of interaction with end-users is the NIWA National Climate Centre (NCC). The programme is strongly collaborative, both with other New Zealand research providers and with international climate research organisations, whose research and findings have applications in fisheries science and marine ecosystems, freshwater ecology and hydrology, energy research, economic research and in many relevant sectors of the economy including agriculture, tourism, energy, and regional infrastructure.

Key questions addressed under this programme include:

  • how will global climate change affect New Zealand surface climate, and what will the impacts be upon climate-sensitive sectors of the economy?
  • how do Tropical and Antarctic climate signals interact, and how do they influence New Zealand climate?
  • what controls the heat budget of the Tasman Sea and oceans around New Zealand?
  • how do we best predict seasonal climate variations in New Zealand, and present them to end-users?
  • how do Māori communities and businesses become more resilient in the face of climate variability and change?

The results

This programme is the latest in a series of research endeavours covering the last decade and longer. During the lifetime of the current programme and its immediate predecessor, we have achieved many milestones, including:

  • implementation of New Zealand’s first regional climate change modelling programme

Regional climate change modelling programme

  • comprehensive guidance for regional government on the likely effects of climate change during the 21st century

MfE - Climate Change Effects and Impacts Assessment: A Guidance Manual for Local Government in New Zealand 

  • detection and attribution of climate change trends over New Zealand
  • the development of an operational seasonal climate forecasting system for New Zealand

Seasonal Climate Outlook: seasonal climate forecasting system

  • new understanding of regional (and Pacific-wide) ocean circulation, heat content, and long-term trends

NZ temperature record

  • on-going commitment to the Argo ocean observing system (NIWA has been responsible for deploying more Southern Hemisphere Argo floats than any other nation)

Argo ocean observing system 

  • detailed understanding of interannual and decadal climate variability across in the Pacific, and how it affects many sectors of the New Zealand economy

Climate variability and change (Clivar)

  • Multidisciplinary research aimed at providing Māori society with the latest science and guidance on climate change impacts, vulnerability, resilience and adaptation.

Climate and Māori society

NIWA Contacts

Chief Scientist - Climate, Atmosphere and Hazards
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Principal Scientist - Marine Physics
Regional Manager - Nelson
Climate Scientist
Page last updated: 
4 October 2016
Wairarapa Drought. [NIWA]