Blending science with indigenous knowledge of changing wetlands

Like much of the world, wetlands in Australia face unprecedented challenges due to climate change and other human activities. Invasive species, increase in temperatures, variability in rainfall and water extraction are all negatively affecting wetland health and people’s relationship to the environment.

With the health and expanse of wetlands in decline worldwide, there is an urgent need to improve their management and bolster restoration activities. At a minimum, wetlands deemed of international importance under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands require baseline assessment of their baseline and ongoing monitoring. Satellite earth observations and drones can be powerful tools for this type of wetlands monitoring; however, they do have limitations when it comes to spatial range and availability over time.

A key way to confront these limitations and help improve the success wetland management and restoration is to bring together a western scientific analysis of changes in wetland water, soil and vegetation, with indigenous long-term knowledge of the landscape that can fill information gaps.

Our current research shows how a spatial imagery visualisation tool that detects long-term (1988 – 2021) changes to wetland coverage, when combined with indigenous knowledge, can improve our understanding of the baseline wetland conditions, how the wetlands have changed over time and provides a means for their ongoing monitoring.

In various wetlands around Australia, we compared the results obtained using a spatial imagery tool with the local observations of Traditional Owners and found that the two forms of information followed similar trends and complemented each other, providing a very valuable monitoring tool to manage the problems wetlands like those on Stradbroke Island are currently facing.

Minjerribah (Stradbroke Island)

Minjerribah (Stradbroke Island), a sand island of high wetland diversity, is the home of the Nunukul, Ngugi and Goenpul people who have inhabited the island for over 25,000 years. Due to the natural filtering capacity of the island’s sand and its healthy wetlands, the water the island produces is of very high quality, requiring little treatment. For this reason, SEQWater sources more than 50% of the water needed for Redlands Council from Minjerribah, a whopping 8,250 ML every year. With the population continuing to grow the Elders of Minjerribah are concerned about the effects this water extraction is having on the wetlands. They are especially concerned about those of cultural importance like Bummiera or Brown Lake, one of the few unique dune or perched lakes of eastern Queensland, which they have reported to be diminishing in size.

Bummiera (Brown Lake)
Bummiera (Brown Lake) 1998 – 2021

We used our spatial visualisation tool to confirm the Elders observations that the open water area and aquatic vegetation cover of the lake decreased since a strong and long Millennial drought occurred in Australia between 2001-2009. While Elders suspect water extraction is the primary culprit, it is only one of a number of possibilities. Recent increases in the lake and vegetation coverage following the heavy rainfalls of the past three years shows how difficult it is to disentangle climatic variations from anthropogenic pressures and natural cycles of wetlands. In these circumstances, continuous monitoring of lakes like Bummiera with our visualisation tool is crucial in helping resolve the cause these changes to the lake and subsequently inform the Traditional Owners of the island on how best to manage their water resources and the appropriate water extraction levels for the island. 

” … seeing with both eyes”; the merging of scientific spatial visualisation tools with indigenous knowledge. The combination is a clear example of how lived experiences complements photographic imagery … “

This is an example of the concept known as “seeing with both eyes”; the merging of scientific spatial visualisation tools with indigenous knowledge. The combination is a clear example of how lived experiences complements photographic imagery and demonstrates how wetlands have changed in an easily understood visually engaging way. It’s only after clearly understanding how wetlands have changed and the driving forces behind it, that we can best determine how to act upon this change, with suggested solutions and long-term ongoing monitoring.

The spatial visualisation tool we helped develop with our partners in Geosciences Australia is a way of addressing the challenges that wetlands are facing in the times of climate change and is a valuable monitoring tool and is an essential early warning of changing water levels and aquatic plant coverage necessary if we are to avoid catastrophic changes in wetlands.

The combining of both indigenous and scientific knowledge will be crucial to support decision-making around the threats the worlds wetlands will face in the near future, the potential solutions to implement, and the subsequently monitoring any management actions taken to ensure success.


Dr Fernanda Adame VivancoDr. Fernanda Adame Vivanco is a Research Fellow working at the Coastal & Marine Research Centre, Australian Rivers Institute at Griffith University. She works collaboratively with the Department of Environment and Sciences, Queensland Government, creating science that is useful for the management, conservation and restoration of wetlands. She graduated from the National Autonomous University in Mexico, where she is originally from, and obtained her PhD from the University of Queensland, Australia. The main focus of her work is the ecosystem services that wetlands provide, such as: carbon sequestration, improvement of water quality, and the protection from tropical storms and flooding. Her current projects include the role of wetlands to improve water quality in the Great Barrier Reef Region and restoration of mangroves to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Australia and Mexico.

Colin HutchinsDr Colin Hutchins is an environmental scientist turned science communicator. He has more than 15 years’ multi-disciplinary research experience in a broad range of environmental sciences, from ecotoxicology to biogeochemistry and genomics, with a focus on the chemistry of contaminants and their consequences. Dismayed at the expanding gap between the academic and public/government/industry understanding of research, he transitioned into science communications. With a Masters degree in Science Communications (University of Queensland), he has worked for Griffith University, Australian Rivers Institute, the Making Good Alliance, the Ningaloo Turtle Program and others developing communication strategies and content.

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