A sign urging Top End travellers to see its wetlands “before we lose them” greets those driving the Arnhem Land Highway towards the nation’s largest national park.
While the grim forecasts for the Great Barrier Reef have garnered international headlines for years, the harsh realities facing Kakadu National Park are not as well known in the public sphere.
But during a trip from Queensland in 2018, Troy Turner began to wonder if the dual-world-heritage-listed icon was set to suffer a similarly devastating fate in the face of climate change.
So he got in touch with Curious Darwin — our story series where you ask us the questions, vote for your favourite, and we investigate.
You can submit your questions on any topic at all, or vote on our next investigation.
“We know that the ocean’s rising and the rest of Kakadu’s pretty flat, so I just thought that with ocean levels rising, is it likely that the Arnhem Land escarpment might become an ocean cliff face again like it used to be many millennia ago?” he said.
Mr Turner said Kakadu needs to be brought forward on the national agenda.
“I think it’s a real shame that it’s [climate change] going to happen, but we need to be proactive now to think about what we can do to protect what we’ve got,” he said.
“Doesn’t it make sense to protect what we know is stable and really, really successful and thriving in terms of biodiversity, rather than waiting to see what might happen down the line?”
‘A diabolical problem’
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 2017.
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”.
“It is a diabolical problem that requires complex and possibly counterintuitive solutions that lie well outside the simplistic ‘condition-pressure-response’ paradigm,” the CSIRO’s report said.
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.
‘All dying away’
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 levees in place to block salt water from moving through the waterways in the region.
Ms Ngalmirama said despite the levees, 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.
“We seen so many fish, file snake, turtle, everything all dying away floating everywhere in the water. It was really bad.
“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.”
Kakadu National Park is one of six Commonwealth parks managed by the Federal Government.
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,” 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.”
Call for funds to address climate change
Northern Territory Environment Minister Eva Lawler said she was concerned that some traditional owners felt they hadn’t received this information.
Ms Lawler said a tunnel-vision approach may have led to a lack of awareness around climate change in Kakadu.
“Just because the numbers that go to Kakadu are probably much smaller than the numbers of visitors that visit the Great Barrier Reef, it shouldn’t mean that one gets more attention over the other,” she said.
The Federal Government handed $444 million to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation last year.
Ms Lawler has called on the Government to pledge the same amount of money for the management of Kakadu National Park in the wake of the latest predictions.
“If you’re going to give $450 million to a group to look after the Great Barrier Reef, lets see also $450 million coming to Kakadu to look after that,” she said.
The Federal Government and Opposition have pledged over $216 million each to rejuvenate Kakadu National Park in an attempt to drum up tourism.
But Ms Lawler questioned whether any of that money would be spent to manage risks posed by climate change.
“People go to Kakadu to see the beautiful environment, so if there are dollars there for tourism, it needs to be spent on looking after the environment,” she said.
“It’s not just about putting in a road to a wetlands or having a lookout, it’s about then protecting that environment, the saltwater intrusion around that environment.”
Ms Lawler said, like the Great Barrier Reef, Kakadu will become a problem concerning more than just Australia.
“The impacts of climate change on Kakadu will be a worldwide issue; it’s not just around what’s happening actually on the ground in Kakadu,” she said.
Parks Australia, a division of the Federal Government’s Department of the Environment and Energy, said it’s aware of the impacts that climate change poses.
Despite traditional owners expressing concerns over a lack of transparency, Parks Australia insists it works in close partnership with all involved.
“We … work together to maintain the resilience of natural freshwater refuges through our invasive weed, feral animal and fire management practices,” a Parks Australia spokesman said.
It acknowledged examples of saltwater intrusion in Kakadu and nearby Mary River have been documented since the 1990s.
Who asked the question?
Queensland public servant Troy Turner fell in love with Kakadu National Park during a trip in 2018, for the environment and ancient cultures that call the region home. After hearing the results of this Curious Darwin investigation, he said action should be taken now to mitigate the impacts of climate change.
“The CSIRO has pretty much concluded that hey, we’re going to have some pretty significant impacts in the park, so definitely I think it’s a real shame that it’s going to happen, but we need to be proactive now to think about what we can do to protect what we’ve got,” he said.
He said it was particularly important to preserve the country of Australia’s First Nations people.
“It’s very easy for us to go to those environments and see the natural beauty there and forget Indigenous cultures have had a connection to those lands for countless generations and have done an amazing job of living on the land,” he said.
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Topics: national-parks, conservation, environment, government-and-politics, community-and-society, water-management, water, climate-change, jabiru-0886, nt, darwin-0800
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