Will climate change be devastating for Kakadu?

Publish Date:
2nd April 2019

Excerpt below read full story on ABC website

By Rani Hayman

Scientists have been researching the potential impacts of climate change on the Kakadu National Park for over a decade.

But one of the more recent reports predicted the park could begin to see destructive climate change impacts in 51 years. 

Kakadu wetlands are "highly vulnerable to future saltwater inundation because of climate change-induced sea-level rise and concomitant increases in extreme weather events such as storm surges and flooding", according to the CSIRO Marine and Freshwater Research 2018.

The study predicted that by as early as 2070, the park could lose at least 60 per cent of its freshwater flood plains to sea-level rise and saltwater inundation.

By 2100 that number is predicted to increase to 78 per cent, and by 2132 all current freshwater flood plains are predicted to be under sea water.

The flow-on effects could strike a devastating blow to the park's biodiverse freshwater ecosystems, killing off native vegetation and causing the loss of wildlife habitats.

The report stressed that risk-management decisions about the region "need to be made now despite prediction uncertainties".

The park is one of few places in the world listed as a World Heritage site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) for both cultural and natural values.

It's legally protected by the International Ramsar Convention On Wetlands and is home to the world's longest continuous surviving culture.

Traditional Aboriginal owners in Kakadu told the ABC they've observed the effects of saltwater intrusion in the park for decades, but haven't been warned about predictions.

In the 1970s, Mirarr traditional owner Annie Ngalmirama and her family were living in Kakadu's Burrungkuy (Nourlangie) region — now known for rock art, birdlife and walks and lookouts.

She said her father was among a group of men who put levies in place to block salt water from moving through the waterways in the region.

Ms Ngalmirama said despite the levies, salt water got through in some areas and destroyed freshwater ecosystems in its path.

"It did work in the flood plain where they blocked that all along, but not along the river, it [salt water] came all the way up to where we were living," she said.

"It changed a lot, all the trees died and some other billabong that used to be a billabong, well it's not there anymore, it's a flood plain now."

Although Kakadu is owned by Aboriginal traditional owners, it's leased to the Director of National Parks in a joint management agreement.

Murmburr traditional owner Jordon Alderson said an improvement in communications was needed to ensure that threats posed by climate change can be managed by all involved.

"I haven't got an annual report or anything about the Alligator River system from Parks at all, and I think it's a bit of a letdown," he said.

"I mean I have [seen] changes, the saltwater intrusion come up and kill paperbark trees and that."

Mr Alderson acknowledged that some climate change impacts are inevitable, but he said better collaboration would ensure the park's protection into the future.

"The quicker you act, the quicker you can sort of deal with it, so that's probably the better way to go about it, instead of leaving it to the last minute and then it's too late to do anything," he said.

Mr Alderson's view has been echoed by the Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation, which represents the Mirarr people in Kakadu.

Mirarr traditional owner Corben Mudjandi said he's hopeful that Parks Australia would listen to the community.

"They haven't been clear with us about country and what's happening and that with this happening," he said.

"I believe Gundjeihmi and Kakadu rangers should work more closely to try to prevent native wildlife and species going away from us and try to protect country."