Climate change is having a damaging effect in Australia as shifting Antarctic winds dry out southern parts of the country, new research suggests.

Loss of rain combined with unprecedented hot weather this year is "ominous for communities and the environment", according to Dr Nerilie Abram from the Australian National University.

She added: "Our findings confirm that climate change is already having an impact on parts of Australia.

"Antarctica and the Southern Ocean are remote but this region influences Australia's heatwaves, affects whether our crops get the winter rainfall they need and determines how quickly our ocean levels rise."

Winter rainfall in south-west Australia had declined by more than 20% since the 1970s because of the shifting westerly rain belt, the study showed. Perth now relies on a desalination plant to supplement its water supplies.

Southward shifts in westerly winds that circle the Southern Ocean were clearly linked to human effects such as rising levels of greenhouse gases and ozone depletion, said the scientists writing in the journal Nature Climate Change.

The team compared recent Antarctic climate trends with past fluctuations using information from ice cores and computer simulations.

British lead author Dr Julie Jones, from the University of Sheffield, said Antarctic climate was like a giant jigsaw puzzle with most of the pieces still missing.

"At face value, many of the climate trends in Antarctica seem counter-intuitive for a warming world," she said.

"Scientists have good theories for why, but these ideas are still difficult to prove with the short records we are working with."