Non-stationarity of “Nature’s Limit” - Implications for Agriculture in Semi-arid Environments

Tuesday, 16 December 2014: 9:30 AM
Carly Tozer1, Anthony Kiem2 and Danielle Verdon-Kidd2, (1)University of Newcastle, Callaghan, NSW, Australia, (2)University of Newcastle, Callaghan, Australia
“Rain follows the plow” was a theory that encouraged agricultural settlement in dryland areas in both the United States of America and Australia during the mid-1800s. Supporters of the theory believed that humans could master nature and alter the climate through cultivation of the soil. An opponent of this theory was George W. Goyder, who used vegetation in South Australia as an indicator to mark out the extent of the area’s severe 1865 drought, effectively establishing “nature’s limit” to reliable agriculture in South Australia. This limit became known as Goyder’s Line and demarked the boundary between land suitable for agricultural pursuits (i.e. cropping) to the south and land only suitable for grazing in the State’s arid north. Current cropping areas however extend north beyond this line, suggesting that either a) the line is not well defined, b) cropping is occurring on land considered ‘non-viable’ according to Goyder’s Line or c) the line distinguishing where cropping is and is not viable varies on interannual to multidecadal timescales. In this study, the 220 mm growing season (April to October) rainfall isohyet is used as a proxy for Goyder’s Line in order to assess its temporal and spatial variability. Using indices of the El Niño/Southern Oscillation, Indian Ocean variability, Southern Annular Mode and the Subtropical Ridge, it is shown that climate state significantly influences the location of the 220 mm growing season rainfall isohyet. This implies that the boundary between viable and non-viable cropping areas (i.e. Goyder’s Line or “nature’s limit”) is non-stationary. These results also indicate the key influences on South Australia’s climate and have important implications globally for agricultural practices operating in or bordering semi-arid environments.