2019 was NZ's fourth-warmest year on record, world's second-warmest

New Zealand experienced its fourth-warmest year in history in 2019, according to the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric's (NIWA) annual climate summary, released on Thursday.

The average temperature across the nation for the year was 13.37C, 0.76C above the average recorded between 1981 and 2010. 

Worldwide, 2019 was the second-hottest on record - and would have taken the top spot had 2016 not been affected by a strong El Nino weather pattern, European scientists said. 2016 also remains New Zealand's hottest year, averaging 13.45C - 0.84C above the long-term average. 2018 is second.

Tauranga led the way in 2019, recording an all-time high average temperature of 16C, a massive 1.1C above its normal. Ngawi (0.9C above average), Farewell Spit (1.4C) and Kaikōura (1.1C) also set records, while places like Dunedin, Hastings, Invercargill, Whangarei, Rotorua and Kerikeri are amongst those recording second- or third-highest temperatures.

Whangarei was the hottest place in general, recording an average temperature of 16.5C.

The two hottest temperatures both happened on January 31 - Hanmer Forest leading the way, reaching 38.4C and nearby Waiau recording 37.8C.

Funnily enough, Hanmer Forest also recorded the country's second-coldest temperature of the year - hitting -9.1C on June 28. It was only beaten by Lake Tekapo, which plummeted to -9.2C on June 3.

Hanmer Forest - both the hottest and one of the coldest places in New Zealand in 2019.
Hanmer Forest - both the hottest and one of the coldest places in New Zealand in 2019. Photo credit: Getty

Record highs were also recorded in Rotorua (which hit 32.2C on February 13), Wellington (30.3C on January 29), Lake Tekapo (35C on January 31), Hamilton (32C on January 29) and Upper Hutt (33.5C on January 29). 

"From January 27 - February 1 a combination of warm seas, high pressure over the country and a hot airmass originating from Australia led to heatwave conditions across New Zealand," NIWA's summary said.

"Several locations across the country observed record or near-record high daily maximum and minimum summer temperatures."

January was the third-hottest on record, caused by warm seas, which remained that way through 2019's early months.

"Warmer than average seas contribute to warmer than average temperatures on land but can also provide extra energy for passing storms," NIWA said, pointing to the rainfall which destroyed Westland's Waiho River Bridge in March.

Other parts of the country were left dry by the heat, with Nelson, Tauranga and Hamilton all experiencing near-record spells without rain. 

"Tinder-dry conditions in the Tasman District fuelled a large scrub fire in Pigeon Valley near Wakefield" in February, NIWA said. "It was reportedly the largest aerial firefight in New Zealand's history, with 23 helicopters and two planes used at the peak of the fire."

Winter was mild, the seventh-warmest on record. 

A follow-up heatwave in early November, caused by "a northwesterly airflow delivering warm and dry air from interior Australia", saw heat records broken too, most notably in Kawerau - which registered 34.6C, the third-highest spring temperature in history. November was the hottest in New Zealand's history.  

Not a single month was below average in temperature.

Graphic showing how New Zealand has been getting warmer and warmer.
Graphic showing how New Zealand has been getting warmer and warmer. Photo credit: NIWA

"It has now been 35 months since New Zealand has had a month with below-average temperatures (since January 2017)," NIWA said. "Furthermore, five of the past seven years have been amongst New Zealand’s hottest on record. This trend is consistent with the overall pattern of global warming."

Globally, 2019 was 0.6C hotter than the 1981-2010 average, and about 1.2C warmer than before the industrial revolution and mankind's burning of fossil fuels went into overdrive. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is also at an 800,000-year high, scientists said.

"The past five years have been the warmest on record; the last decade has been the warmest on record," said Jean-Noel Thepaut of the EU's Copernicus Climate Change Service.

"These are unquestionably alarming signs."

NASA and the US-based National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will release their 2019 analyses later this month, and are expected to back up the EU's findings. 

Nelson was the sun capital of the country in 2010, recording 2859 hours, followed by Blenheim with 2799 hours and Napier with 2709. 

"Of the six main centres in 2019, Tauranga was the warmest, Dunedin was the coolest, Wellington was the wettest, Christchurch was the driest, Auckland was the sunniest and Dunedin was the least sunny."

The strongest wind gust was recorded on May 15 at Cape Turnagain, between Hawke's Bay and Wellington, and measured 196km/h.