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Extreme weather - heavy rainfall

Heavy rainfall is one of the most frequent and widespread severe weather hazards to affect New Zealand. It is defined as rainfall greater than 100 mm in 24 hours.

In New Zealand, heavy rainfall is relatively common. Often, a significant amount of precipitation occurs in only a few hours, leading to severe flooding and landslide risk.

Causes of heavy rainfall

Heavy rainfall occurs over New Zealand mainly because of the following common weather systems:

  • ex-tropical cyclones
  • North Tasman Sea lows moving to NZ region
  • depression/lows from the south
  • cold fronts.

New Zealand's mountains tend to modify and amplify precipitation, and this often causes the frequent heavy rainfall we experience. Heavy rainfall tends be most common over the western coastal region of the South Island and the middle and upper North Island, and least common on the east side of the South Island (due to the prevailing westerlies).

Potential consequences of heavy rainfall

Heavy rainfall can lead to numerous hazards, for example:

  • flooding, including risk to human life, damage to buildings and infrastructure, and loss of crops and livestock
  • landslides, which can threaten human life, disrupt transport and communications, and cause damage to buildings and infrastructure.

Where heavy rainfall occurs with high winds, risk to forestry crops is high.

Heavy rainfall research at NIWA

NIWA scientists are currently working within the Reducing the Impact of Weather-Related Hazards Programme to improve hazard mitigation and increase society's resilience to hazards such as heavy rainfall.

To achieve this, we are developing and applying improved weather prediction models capable of accurately forecasting severe events in New Zealand.

Current NIWA research projects

For heavy rainfall specifically, we are:

  • Developing very high resolution numeric weather prediction (NWP) forecast models and investigating the effects of model resolution on heavy rainfall simulation. Models are run with a resolution of 12km and 1.5km on NIWA's supercomputer.

More information on our supercomputing facility

  • Improving the model performance by incorporating all available meteorological observationsto generate the initial atmospheric conditions as accurately as possible.
  • Improving the processes that control the dynamic characteristics and predictability of heavy rainfall in the New Zealand region into the NWP model formulations, including the land surface processes needed.
  • Developing ensemble methods/forecasts by running the model several times with slightly different initial conditions to increase our confidence in forecasting heavy rainfall.

The output of this research is being incorporated into our environmental forecasting product, EcoConnect.

Visit the EcoConnect website

Additionally, NIWA has analysed measurements of extreme rainfall throughout New Zealand, and developed the free HIRDS software tool to provide public information on the risk of extreme rainfall.  HIRDS is regularly used by engineers throughout New Zealand, to assist in designing bridges, culverts and waterways. HIRDS includes an option to make an assessment of the impact of climate change on extreme rainfall.

Visit the HIRDS website


Flooding. Credit: Russell Watson
Flood debris on the Kerikeri Basin bridge during the flooding of March 2007. Photo: FNDC.
Large rock and debris slide in the Manawatu Gorge which blocked SH 3 for about 3 months after initial failure during the February 2004 heavy rainfall.
Flooding at Riverside Drive, Lower Hutt from the Waiwhetu Stream, 15-16 February 2004
Left: Photo-like image from MODIS on NASA’s Aqua satellite on 13 June 2006 showing the snow cover over the South Island, New Zealand from a winter storm swept New Zealand on June 12. The snow stretches to the sea on the east side of the island. Right: Satellite imagery from MODIS Aqua at 0159 NZST 16 February showing the deep clouds associated with the deep depression that brought heavy rainfall to the lower and middle North Island