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Parched Australia Hoping for Wet New Year


There is cautious hope that Australia's long drought is about to break. The La Nina weather pattern has drenched parts of the arid continent in recent months. Sydney had its wettest November in more than a decade, up the coast in Queensland tropical storms have provided relief to hard-pressed farmers. From Sydney, Phil Mercer reports.

The grey skies over much of eastern Australia in recent weeks have been welcome. For the past several years, the country has been gripped by the worst drought anyone can remember.

Many farmers have gone out of business and major cities have imposed tough water restrictions.

The drought began about six years ago, but there is now cautious optimism that the worst of so-called Big Dry may be over.

Clinton Rakich from Bureau of Meteorology says Australia's most populous state, New South Wales, enjoyed a wet end to 2007.

"We had a distinct change in our rainfall patterns in November. We experienced very much above average rainfall and above average for most of the state," he said. "December's proving to be another wet month so, yeah, it has been a distinct change from the previously very dry spring and winter period."

Experts link the wet weather in Australia's eastern states to the La Nina weather pattern.

The La Nina's cooler sea surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean usually bring wetter weather to many countries, including Australia.

Roger Stone, professor of climatology and water resources at the University of Southern Queensland, thinks recent downpours will continue well into the new year.

"With the La Nina pattern in the Pacific Ocean there's potential for that type of general situation to continue through the Australian summer but Australia being a large country there's many parts of the nation still fairly badly affected by drought certainly in parts of western Australia and south Australia and so on," said Stone.

Some climatologists worry that La Nina may be losing its potency because it is not dumping the massive amounts of rain on Australia that it used to.

Scientists are not sure if this is a result of long-term climate change or part of a natural cycle.

Professor Stone hopes the rains will break the drought but he urges caution. He thinks many more wet months are needed to replenish Australia's dry rivers and reservoirs.

"I think because of the massive rainfall deficits built up over many, many years - decades in some instances - and because of the problems of getting dam levels up and streams flowing again - that will take a lot more than one reasonable wet season," he said.

There are hopes in cities that if the rains continue, restrictions on water use might be relaxed.

Farmers too are hoping for a damp new year.

Jock Lawrie, the president of the New South Wales Farmers Association, says recent downpours have boosted morale in many parts of the Outback.

"I don't think it could be timed much better. I mean, it's come in late spring," he said. "It would've been great if it had come a bit earlier but certainly the areas that have had rain it's been a significant change in the consistently bad weather pattern that we've had, so [it is] a great change."

The weather forecast for the next three months is mixed.

Australia's east and southwest can look forward to above normal rainfall. The picture is not so rosy for central and southern parts, where the Big Dry is likely to persist.

Jock Lawrie hopes forecasters are right about more rain on the way.

"They've been predicting this change - this La Nina change - now for about six to eight months and it's taken a long while for it to get going and as we go into the change and we continue to get more and more rain we'll gradually build up a bit more confidence," he said.

Australia is renowned for its wild and varied climate and landscape.

Australians are often at the mercy of hostile conditions, which has helped shape the national character.

Drought has challenged the people of this continent, but there now is hope that nature will relent and bring much-needed rain.

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