Last week we posted an update about the flood emergency that was unfolding in the central Kimberley, with intense rainfall causing the Martuwarra-Fitzroy River to rise to record high levels. The water level at Mornington reached well above floor height in the research centre and the restaurant, and many of the staff accommodation buildings were also inundated. Staff and researchers based at Mornington and Charnley River were evacuated by helicopter to Derby and have since been transferred safely to Broome.
State of play
Floodwaters have receded along the Martuwarra-Fitzroy River and the operations bases are no longer under immediate threat of inundation. Throughout the wider Kimberley, there has been substantial displacement of people from communities and efforts are underway to start transporting people home, when it is safe. Extensive damage to roads means that movement around the region is largely reliant on the availability of helicopters. Access to Mornington and Charnley River by road is likely to remain impossible for months. With these constraints, it will be some time before AWC’s conservation programs in the Kimberley can return to normal.
Damage assessment and restoring essential services
On Thursday and Friday, AWC sent a team by helicopter from Derby out to Mornington and Charnley River to carry out an initial assessment of the flood damage. Restoring power and water will be the first steps towards re-establishing a safe and secure work environment. Restoring access to the properties is also a priority; an inspection of the airstrips at Charnley River and Mornington will be carried out over coming days. The team will also begin to take stock of damage to assets: buildings, vehicles, survey gear, and IT equipment that was on-site which may have been damaged or destroyed. At this stage we can’t be sure how much equipment might need replacing. The team will attempt to retrieve biological samples (tissue, DNA, and blood samples), used in research that informs our Kimberley conservation programs. As with any flood event, the aftermath will be muddy and messy, and buildings will need to be cleaned out and repaired. Distressingly for the people who live on-site at Mornington, personal belongings have also been damaged or lost. AWC is providing support to staff members affected.
We do not yet know the implications of this event on visitation at Mornington, which was due to open for the 2023 dry season from June. For now, we have suspended new bookings for Mornington Wilderness Camp and will provide a further update after the damage assessment is complete.
Effects on wildlife
Animals and plants in Northern Australia have evolved in the context of a dramatically seasonal monsoon climate, with a long dry season and an intense and variable wet season. Many species are well-adapted (and even depend upon) seasonal periods of heavy rainfall and flooding. However, this record-breaking event serves as another example of extreme weather events becoming more severe as climate change accelerates. Most land animals and birds are able to move to higher ground or seek refuge in the canopy of tall trees. There will likely have been some impact on populations of less mobile species in low-lying areas and those which depend closely on riparian vegetation. The Purple-crowned Fairy-wren population at Mornington, which has been the subject of a long-running Monash University research program, will likely have taken a hit from the floods. Nonetheless, the recent high rainfall across the region will trigger a flourish of plant growth and insect activity, which in turn can be expected to bring a boost to most wildlife populations in the year ahead.
Ongoing support for our team
The wellbeing of staff, partners and the communities where we work remains of the greatest concern to AWC. While the immediate threat to the safety of our Kimberley team has passed, Mornington and Charnley are also home for many of our team. AWC is providing assistance to staff dealing with the loss or damage of their personal belongings, as well as ongoing mental health support.
Thank you for your support
At times like this, we are deeply grateful for the generosity and support of the wider AWC family. The AWC team is grateful for the many messages of support that we have received over the past week. This has been a trying time for AWC in the Kimberley and your kindness and support means a lot.