SYDNEY (Reuters) - Droughts in Australia have traditionally been linked to El Nino events in the Pacific Ocean, but a new study says the key driver of major droughts has been a warming and cooling cycle in the Indian Ocean.
The research shows Australia's major droughts over the past 120 years, including the Federation drought (1895-1902), the World War Two drought (1937-1945), and the present drought (post-1995), all coincide with fluctuations in ocean temperature known as the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD).
Researchers from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) say their study explains why a series of La Nina weather events, which usually bring Pacific rains to Australia, have failed to break the current drought, the worst in 100 years.
When the IOD is in a negative phase it creates cool Indian Ocean water west of Australia and warm Timor Sea water to the north. This generates winds that pick up moisture from the ocean and sweep across southern Australia, delivering wet conditions.
In a positive phase, the pattern of Indian Ocean temperatures is reversed, weakening the winds and reducing the amount of moisture picked up and transported across Australia, said the study to be published in Geophysical Research Letters.
"What we have found is that there has not been a single wet event, not a single negative event in the Indian Ocean Dipole since 1992," said Caroline Ummenhofer from the UNSW Climate Change Research Center, who led the research.
"That means all you are left with in southeast Australia is dry events. The cause of the "Big Dry," the current drought, is actually due to a lack of negative Indian Ocean Dipole events that remove the wet years from southeast Australia."