Auckland Just Had Its Wettest Month in Over 170 Years, and More Rain Is on the Way

By Bob Henson and Jeff Masters. Henson is a meteorologist and journalist based in Boulder, Colorado. Masters worked as a hurricane scientist with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990 and co-founded the Weather Underground. Originally published at Yale Climate Connections.

New Zealand’s largest city, Auckland — renowned for its typically tranquil climate — is now gasping its way through a flood-soaked southern summer that won’t quit. Having endured its wettest month and wettest single day on record, Auckland is now looking warily to its northwest as Tropical Cyclone Gabrielle gathers steam. Gabrielle is likely to bring yet another punishing round of heavy rain to New Zealand’s North Island early next week.

— (@WeatherWatchNZ) February 8, 2023

Climate change is exacerbating the wet setup, as a freight train of rainmaking systems from the tropical western Pacific draws on unusually high sea surface temperatures (up to six degrees Celsius or 11 degrees Fahrenheit above average near the South Island) associated with a marine heat wave. Intensified short-term rains and warming oceans are two of the most clearly established effects of a human-warmed planet.

Auckland had already racked up one of its wettest months in 170 years of record-keeping before an especially intense round of rain on Jan. 28 triggered particularly severe flooding. The month’s final total of 539 millimeters (21.22 inches) was more than 25% higher than any other month going back to 1853, including the old record of 420 mm (16.54 inches) set in February 1869, according to NIWA, New Zealand’s National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research/Taihoro Nukarangi.

Insured damage for New Zealand’s resulting January floods could hit $630 million USD, according to one estimate, which would make it the nation’s costliest flood on record by far. At least four deaths have been reported. According to EM-DAT, the international disaster database, New Zealand’s previous costliest flood was a summer 2004 flash flood that cost $310 million (2023 USD).

New Zealand’s only billion-dollar weather disaster on record (adjusted for inflation) was a 2013 drought that cost $1.1 billion.



Figure 1. Rainfall totals for each month in Auckland, New Zealand, as measured since 1853. (Image credit: NIWA)

The band of culprits putting Auckland underwater

La Niña, the cooling of the eastern Pacific that’s been in control since late 2020 and is expected to wrap up early this year, tends to generate warming in the western Pacific. It often leads to tropical cyclones rolling their way from the Coral Sea southeast toward New Zealand. However, most such cyclones angle away from the island nation or weaken before reaching it.

This summer in the southwest Pacific, La Niña has had unusually juicy air to work with. One analysis from NOAA and the University of Wisconsin, Madison, found that precipitable water (the amount of moisture in a column above the surface) was running up to twice its usual values for the region within an atmospheric river in late January.

The atmospheric river was funneled toward New Zealand by a tropical low (the remnants of Tropical Cyclone 10P), and the moisture was squeezed out across the North Island, particularly the Auckland area.

“Converging moisture with origins from the tropics almost always produces extreme precipitation downstream,” tweeted Sheldon Kusselson, a retired satellite meteorologist from NOAA.



Figure 2. A channel of moisture with precipitable water values exceeding 45 millimeters (1.77 inches) extended from the deep tropics into northern New Zealand on Jan. 29, 2023. (Image credit: NOAA/NESDIS via Sheldon Kusselson)

On Jan. 28, Auckland’s Albert Park reported an unprecedented 280 mm of rain (11.02 inches), including 211 mm (8.31 inches) in just six hours.

“The Earth has warmed by about 1.1°C already because of human activity and this extra heat gives more power to extreme rainfall. All other things being equal, we would expect climate change to contribute between 10-20% more rain in the most intense part of this storm,” said climate scientist Sam Dean in a NIWA media release.

Another factor: water infrastructure that hasn’t kept up with a growing city. “Many parts of the network are aging and under increasing pressure from continued urbanization and greater rainfall intensity,” said NIWA urban aquatic scientist Annette Semadeni-Davies in the media release.

“Nature-based solutions, such as infiltration basins, ponds, and wetlands, have been put forward as additions to our current pipe-based systems for flood protection. However, these alone won’t be enough. We also need to explore low-risk infrastructure that diverts and stores water more effectively, introduce managed retreat for vulnerable areas, and continued maintenance and upgrades to our existing drain network.”

Kevin Trenberth, a senior scientist emeritus and expert on global water and climate change long based at the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research, is now living in his native New Zealand near Auckland.

“Recently, as part of a team of international scientists that just published a paper on ocean changes, I’ve been commenting on the fact that the [global] oceans are at their warmest state ever and that it has consequences,” Trenberth wrote in an essay on Jan. 29.

“While the recent flood disasters are not directly caused by climate change, the warming climate contributes substantially to making all extremes more so, and the damage increases exponentially.”

Gabrielle gathers strength en route to New Zealand

Tropical Cyclone Gabrielle will add to the woes of northern New Zealand over the next few days. Because it originated from a large monsoonal low, Gabrielle has been slow to organize. The flip side is that Gabrielle is an unusually large tropical cyclone already packing immense amounts of water vapor. Gabrielle’s sustained winds as of 7 a.m. EST Thursday were 80 mph.

Gabrielle is predicted to head on a straightforward southeast track over the next several days, peaking as a high-end category 1 hurricane with 90 mph winds on Friday morning (U.S. EST). By late in the weekend, Gabrielle should hook southward just as it nears the North Island, likely going through post-tropical transition around this time, and Gabrielle may be subtropical or extratropical when it makes its closest approach to New Zealand. Tropical cyclones are uncommon in New Zealand; NOAA’s historical hurricane database shows only two hurricane-force storms have ever hit the island, Tropical Cyclone Gisele (1968) and Tropical Cyclone Alison (1975).

Regardless of how the storm is classified, the predicted motion would allow Gabrielle’s clockwise circulation to fling a large field of deep tropical moisture across the North Island. Ensemble output from the GFS model (GEFS) indicates that the Auckland area could easily pick up four inches or more of rainfall on Sunday and Monday, with even heavier amounts possible across east-facing slopes. Falling on saturated soils, the heavy rain could lead to serious flooding. High winds from Gabrielle could bring down trees and power lines.

Because of Gabrielle’s large area of tropical-storm-force winds, coastal damage from several feet of storm surge is also a danger.


Figure 3. Fewer tropical cyclones have been affecting Australia’s east and west coasts, and New Zealand, in recent years (blue areas on map). White dots show where these trends are statistically significant. (Image credit: Murakami et al., 2020, “Detected climatic change in global distribution of tropical cyclones,” PNAS May 19, 2020, 117:20, 10706-10714)

Australia has seen a decrease in tropical cyclones in recent years

Even as New Zealand will have suffered through the impacts of two tropical cyclones this year, Australia — which is historically more prone than New Zealand to catastrophic impacts from tropical cyclones — has enjoyed yet another relatively tranquil cyclone season thus far.

Natural variability and climate change have caused significant changes in the distribution of tropical cyclones in recent decades, and Australia has been the beneficiary of a reduced incidence of landfalling tropical cyclones (Figure 3).

According to statistics from EM-DAT, Australia has suffered seven billion-dollar tropical cyclones since 1974. Just one of these storms, Tropical Cyclone Debbie of 2017, occurred in the past 10 years. However, some islands of the Southeast Pacific to the east of Australia, such as Tonga and Samoa, have seen an increase in tropical cyclones.

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  1. Wukchumni

    I’ve been friends with a fellow numismatist I met in Auckland in 1981, and he’ll give me the scoop as it happens hopefully, and hopefully no harm happens.

    1. Wukchumni


      This incoming cyclone has the potential to do a 1926 style Miami type housing bubble wipeout of Auckland, and in the housing bubble game-plucky little New Zealand always being the overachiever in such things, managed to be the most pricey of everybody in the entire world…

  2. ambrit

    The operational line I gleaned from the article is the quote from the scientist that mentions “…managed retreat for vulnerable areas..” In plain speech; we will have to move to higher ground. Phyl and I can consider ourselves as early adopters of that strategy. We moved well inland and to higher ground after Hurricane Katrina flood waters forced us to spend the storm in our attic.
    The entire world is going to have to do this sooner or later. Sooner would be better for the ultimate outcomes, but we’re not holding our breaths about that.
    As various situations have shown, the people “making the decisions” are dysfunctional at best. Wait until Lower Manhattan starts to flood with every King Tide. [Keeping the subways dry doesn’t even bear thinking about.]
    King Tide:
    Stay safe and dry, if you can.

      1. Wukchumni

        I don’t know if it is still so much an issue, but there was a time when leaky roofs were a problem on homes in NZ, much more commonplace than you’d see here.

        Where’d i’d want my bunker to be is is in the Southern Alps, but it rains and snows 200 days a year, so maybe not on the bunker, but how about a hut on the Rees-Dart tramp that holds around 40-50 people, complete with hut warden who brews his own beer and likes to give out samples.

        The dayhike to go to from there is this beauty~

        1. Wukchumni


          Knowstradamus remembers perhaps a giant cyclone that leveled & buried giant Kauri trees 50,000 years ago in the north of the North Island…

          Swamp kauri, sometimes marketed as “ancient kauri”, are prehistoric kauri trees (Agathis australis), buried and preserved in peat up to 50,000 years ago in New Zealand’s North Island. Buried under a peat swamp by an unexplained act of nature at the end of the last Ice Age, the trees have survived the centuries underground, sealed in a chemically balanced environment that has preserved the timber in almost perfect condition.

            1. ambrit

              To knock those giants over, it would have had to have been a record shattering tsunami/flood.
              Just another data point in the catastrophist column of the ongoing ‘scientific’ debate, (for some definition of ‘debate.’)
              We have a similar “drowned forest” dated to about 60,000 years before present fifty miles off of the mouth of the Mobile Bay, in the Gulf of Mexico. I’ve linked to this before.
              This also seems to be a more common event than we would like to admit. As an example, the Burkle Crater in the Indian Ocean.
              Also the Gulf of Carpinteria craters. (They are dated to a 500 to 650 AD date range.)
              The above:
              Stay safe in the antipodes!

              1. skippy

                Well around there it can be multiple factors per se an earthquake and Tsunami/Flood dynamics.

                Ugh moving 20 years of family life whilst down sizing to just three of us vs six and all the hording. At least its only a few klicks away.

                1. ambrit

                  Empathy from us. We had the dubious boon of having a lot of our ‘hoarded’ stuff destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. What was left was bad enough to move on out. I’m sort of glad that we cannot take it with us. Imagine showing up at wherever one ends up after death with several moving vans of stuff in tow.

        2. vao

          Not wanting to harsh your mellow, but landslides are becoming more common in mountainous regions because of climate change: warming destabilizes the permafrost at altitude — all the while snow avalanches get more unpredictable because weather patterns are messed up.

          In Europe this is slowly becoming an issue with some people wondering what will happen with alpine huts and chalets in places deemed totally safe so far, but that will not necessarily remain so in the middle term.

          1. Wukchumni

            It was only my pretend Illionaire bunker, and in backcountry huts in NZ you’re oftentimes sleeping within a few feet of strangers snoring*, mere commoners!

            * Bring lots of extra pairs of ear plugs to give out

          2. Koldmilk

            The conjunction of landslides and New Zealand reminds me of The Snow Tiger by Desmond Bagley, which is notable for making a government hearing on an avalanche gripping drama.

      2. Jeremy Grimm

        I think problems of flood-safety for Thiel’s bunkers probably translate to trade-offs about the best water sources for the pools and waterfall amenities in Thiel’s bunkers.

        Concentrate on sealing off the entrances and exits from Thiel’s bunkers.

      3. Greeg

        To answer your question, unlikely to threaten boltholes. Most of NZ is significantly further above sea level than the parts of Auckland which flooded (there’s a big spine of mountains down the middle which helps with this). Popular areas for rich glass-bowl retreats are near the base of mountains in the deep south or central north islands, which is a few hundred metres above sea level.

        I’m amazed the Auckland airport doesn’t flood more often, it’s a couple of metres above sea level, maybe, on reclaimed land (ie we dumped rocks into a marshy lagoon until we could lay asphalt on it).

  3. Arizona Slim

    Psst, Auckland, would you mind sharing some of that rain with the West Coast of the United States and with us here in Arizona?

  4. clarky90

    The Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai Volcano Eruption of 2022….

    The blast emitted 50 million metric tons of water vapor into the atmosphere.

    “January 2022 started calm, and it seemed plausible that the eruption had ended. No such luck. On 13 January 2022, at 15:20 UTC a second big explosion occurred; the eruption lasted 22 hours. It destroyed all the remaining 2014 cone but left the 2021 cone in situ. The cloud now reached 18 km. The aftermath is shown in panel c. …”

  5. Jeotsu

    We’ve been commenting here in Wellington for the last few weeks that we’ve been having Auckland-type summer weather — uncomfortable humidity and a haze of clouds. Maybe that’s being driven by the marine heat wave?

    Last year we had the wettest year on our farm in our 19 years of records, up 300mm from the previous peak. My own observation from living on the land was that the climactic inflection point was about a decade ago, and now the old rules no long apply, and the new rules are different every year or two.

  6. flora

    And yet, and darest I say it out loud here, (or type it in black and white here), our time measurements are relatively short term. From 2019:

    New Zealand Browned by Drought

    Computer models love smoothing curves and are working with relatively (100 – 200 year) short (data) time frames, in and against the longer time frame. Forgive me if I’m not overly excited about this. I myself am short sighted, so I know what short sightedness is. / ;)

  7. Jeremy Grimm

    Auckland and it rainfall problems? REALLY????? REALLY?????
    Global Climate Chaos does not revolve around New Zealand and the hopes and fears of the UberKlass putting their futures in New Zealand. I remain hopeful the people of New Zealand will take every opportunity to forever seal the bunkers of the world’s rich.

    1. Paua Fritter

      Excuse my knee-jerk response and disgruntled tone, but … sometimes a story about New Zealand is just a story about New Zealand. Aotearoa is an interesting country in its own right and shouldn’t just be treated as a hook for a story about American billion preppers. /rant

  8. ChrisPacific

    I had to laugh at “renowned for its typically tranquil climate.”

    Other than that the article was pretty accurate though. The floods were awful (experts have said it reminded them of tropical cities during monsoon season). Auckland is a fairly average first world city of around 1 million. It has problems with infrastructure, but probably not unusually bad or atypical ones. If it can happen there, it can happen in a lot of places.

  9. Tom Bradford

    As this cyclone is just a bubble of hot air perhaps the Yanks will come over and shoot it down for us. They’ve had plenty of expensive practice.

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