The Nor’wester is a weather phenomenon particular to New Zealand’s South Island.
It’s a dry, hot wind that swings in from the Tasman Sea, dumping all its moisture on the West Coast before it reaches Canterbury. By the time the Nor’wester hits, it’s sometimesreaching speeds of 130km, and feels not unlike the blast of heat coming out an opened oven door.
South Islanders have long talked about the Nor’wester as a harbinger of chaos. Among the local Māori population, Ngāi Tahu, it was sometimes known as Te Hau Kai Tangata: the cannibal wind, or “wind that devours humankind”. Early Pakeha settlers to Canterbury often wrote about the strange winds hitting the settlement: “For a week past, a furious north-westerly gale has been blowing down the gorges… and sweeping across the great shelterless plains with irresistible force.”
“At last, when our skin felt like tightly-drawn parchment and our ears and eyes had long been filled with powdered earth, the wind dropped at sunset as suddenly as it had risen five days before.”
It’s been blamed for contributing to jumps in domestic violence, crime, suicide, health issues. One study found days with a Nor’wester averaged a 10 percent higher rate of violent crime, even when higher temperature was controlled for—although it notes there’s not enough data to tell if that’s statistically significant. Research from the Ministry of Health found the wind was connected to a six percent increase in the number of people admitted to hospital for diabetes and a 10 percent increase in admissions for renal failure. It hasn’t been studied extensively in New Zealand, but a wind with similar attributes in Austria, known as the Foehn, has been linked to higher rates of mental distress, suicide and crime.
Photographer Naomi Haussmann has been attempting to capture the Canterbury Nor’wester. Here are her images of the South’s cannibal wind.