For a warmer future, Australia employs Aboriginal wisdom

Faced with its worst drought in history, meteorologists are plumbing the Aborigines' 40,000 years of lore.

To white Australians, the flocks of red-tailed black cockatoos which flap above tree canopies are a memorable highlight of any weekend hike. But to Aborigines, the parrots are living, squawking barometers.

"A month ago when the cockatoos were flocking and the wattle bushes were flowering, we saw that as signs of rain," says Jeremy Clark, chief executive of the Brambuk Aboriginal Cultural Centre in the Grampian Mountains of Victoria State. "Sure enough, we've just had two weeks of rain."

Where meteorologists base their prognostications on satellites and synoptic charts, generations of Aborigines have observed the behavior of animals and the continent's flowering of plants.

More than two centuries after the first British settlement was established in 1788, there is a belated recognition that 40,000 years of Aboriginal lore may contribute to the complicated science of Australia's capricious climate.

After seven years of scant rainfall – the worst drought on record – have left vast swathes of the country parched and barren, the Bureau of Meteorology's Indigenous Weather Knowledge Project hopes to harness Aborigines' ancient understanding of weather patterns.

"Our primary focus is mapping the seasons as they are understood by indigenous people," says Harvey Stern, the head of the project. "From there could emerge all sorts of gems which will help us better understand the weather and how it impacts on the environment."

Aborigines claim 90 percent accuracy

For millennia, Aborigines have known that subtle changes to plants and animals provide clues about the weather. Aboriginal weathermen claim that their predictions are 90 percent accurate and as reliable as the evening television forecasts watched by millions of Australians.

The bureau's meteorologists have been tapping the expertise of Aborigines in the tropical north of Australia since 2003. But this is the first time they have drawn on the knowledge of indigenous people in the more populated southeast of the country.

"It's about reading the landscape and the environment through the activities of plants and animals," says Mr. Clark, a member of the Djabwurrung tribe.

"It used to be essential for survival; nowadays it's important for the proper management of the land. Environmental signs can tell us if summer will start early or late, and whether it will be shorter or longer than normal," he says.

For example, in the Simpson Desert of central Australia, the appearance of wading birds called plovers is associated with the onset of seasonal rains.

In the humid north of the Northern Territory, the arrival of the brolga crane was traditionally seen as heralding the beginning of the monsoon season. The flowering of rough-barked gum trees indicates that winds will blow from the southeast, bringing in the dry season.

Aboriginal expertise is also challenging the European concept of four seasons, an axiom the British imported to Australia when they arrived in 1788.

The Northern Hemisphere pattern of spring, summer, fall, and winter sits uncomfortably with the reality of Australia's climate. Aboriginal tribes, in contrast, recognize up to seven distinct seasons. In the Sydney region, for instance, September and October are known by Aboriginal people as Murrai'yunggoray, the time when the red waratah flower blooms.

It is followed by Goraymurrai, a period of warm, wet weather during which Aborigines would not camp near rivers for fear of flooding.

Australia faces climate change's worst

These days, Australians need all the help they can get. Last month, Australian Prime Minister John Howard said the country faced an "unprecedentedly dangerous" drought.

Without significant rain in the next few weeks, farmers in the nation's breadbasket states of New South Wales and Victoria will be denied water for irrigation, consigning millions of acres of crops to wither and die. Tim Flannery, one of Australia's best-known environmentalists, has warned that Australia confronts "the most dangerous situation arising from climate change facing any country in the world right now."

But Australia isn't the only nation to recognize indigenous meteorological knowledge. Experts studying the effects of global warming in the Arctic are looking to Inuit expertise, and South American Indians' knowledge of weather patterns, such as El Niño, has long been recognized.

"The Indians knew that when the ocean was warm they'd get rain from El Niño, so they'd plant potatoes," says Dr. Stern. "When it was cold, there'd be no rain, but the anchovies would be plentiful, so they'd feed on fish."

In the years to come, the Bureau of Meteorology hopes to recruit more Aboriginal communities to the project. To the relief of a parched nation in the midst of its worst-ever "big dry," indigenous weather-watchers and the bureau's climatologists are both predicting rain over the next several months.

"For most parts of Australia there's at least a 50 percent chance of above-average rainfall over the next three months," Stern says. "We have some confidence that the very dry conditions we've been experiencing may be coming to an end."

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