Warm summers and mild winters characterise the climate in the region. In summer daytime temperatures average 24°C. The 24-hour average at Gisborne in January, the hottest month, is 19.2°C, and in July, the coldest month, it is 9.7°C. In winter snow sometimes falls in the back country.
Poverty Bay is one of the sunnier regions in New Zealand, with average yearly sunshine of around 2,200 hours.
Snow by the sea
On 27 July 1939 snow fell for nearly three hours in Gisborne. The Evening Post newspaper reported that: ‘without precedent in living memory, there was a sustained snowfall in Gisborne this morning. Lawns and gardens were mantled in white and even in Main Street there were small drifts against the buildings and on the roofs ... On the Wharerata Range a blizzard was experienced and traffic on the main road to Napier was interrupted.’1
The East Coast is not as dry as Hawke’s Bay, Wairarapa and Canterbury. Being further north, it is more exposed to summer cyclones which bring lots of rain. Gisborne’s average annual rainfall is 1,050 mm; rainfall in the ranges can reach 2,500 mm annually.
Floods and droughts
In January 1876, after 584 mm of rain had fallen in a week, floodwaters broke out of the Awapuni lagoon in Gisborne, flattening the sandhills and reaching the bay. Marooned settlers in outlying districts had to be rescued by boat.
A four-day deluge at the end of March 1910 caused widespread damage and disruption. One man was drowned, the railway closed temporarily and the water supply to Gisborne was cut off for days.
A flood in December 1938 was reckoned by some as the worst to hit the region’s hill country. After a disastrous flood in Poverty Bay in 1948, the local catchment board instigated the Waipāoa Flood Control Scheme, which included stopbanks and two cuts to shorten the river channel.
The region’s most costly natural disaster – Cyclone Bola – came in March 1988 and had a bill of around $60 million. In 72 hours 900 mm of rain fell, nearly not far off Gisborne’s annual average. The city was cut off, the water supply severed and homes evacuated. Some people in outlying districts were stranded for days.
Droughts are uncommon, but in 1983 almost no rain fell for four months.
Much of the region was forested in 1840, but between 1880 and 1920 most of the forest was felled or burnt to clear the land. Extensive areas of indigenous forest now remain only on the main ranges.
Tawa dominated in the lowland hill country. More fertile soils hosted combinations of tōtara, kahikatea and mataī, while less fertile ridges had black beech. Vegetation around the coast included pūriri, karaka, nīkau, kohekohe and tītoki.
In the rest of the region original forest remnants tend to be small and scattered nearer the coast or inland where the cooler, wetter climate meant it was less easily cleared. Regrowth forests are more extensive. Kānuka is most widespread, while mānuka or broadleaved trees generally occur in wetter areas or poorer soils. The introduced radiata pine has been planted throughout the region, and plantation forestry is now a major land use.
Birds and animals
The demise of forests severely affected bird habitats. Noteworthy surviving native species are those that thrive in wetlands, estuaries or on the margin of scrubland. Seabirds breeding in the area include gannets, blue penguins and various shearwater and petrel species, including the black-wing petrel.
In the Raukūmara Range are found Hochstetter's frog, 10 species of native fish (including two threatened species) and long-tailed bats. Introduced animals include red deer, goats (domestic and feral), farm stock, pigs, possums and mustelids (ferrets, stoats and weasels).
Indigenous freshwater fish (eels, bullies and galaxiids, including whitebait) are widespread but low in numbers and diversity due to poor habitat conditions.
Whales and dolphins
Te Tairāwhiti has been associated with whales from the time of Paikea, who in Māori tradition arrived on the coast on a whale’s back. In more recent times, notably in 1970, mass strandings of whales have taken place.
In winter months dolphins range into coastal waters in the southern part of the region.